The operational use of the carrier-based joint strike fighter could mark the beginning of the end of the Navy's manned bombing sorties, if the Navy secretary gets his way.
Mabus announced the creation of the N99 Navy staff office for unmanned weapons systems and a new position for deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for unmanned systems.
"Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas," he said.
The announcement came the same day as a milestone test for the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program, the first of three aerial refueling tests that mark the program's concluding step.
"The UCAS-D program was born with the primary role of, 'Okay, let's show ourselves that we can successfully take off and land from the ship, integrate operations around and on the carrier, and work in the pattern [with manned jets],' " Duarte said.
Now that those tests are complete, it's time to retire the program, he added.
Some in Congress, including Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have called on the Navy to continue testing the aircraft, which have only used about 15 percent of their airframe hours.
That wouldn't be wise, Duarte said, because UCAS is a precursor to the eventual Unmanned Carrier Launched Aerial Surveillance and Strike program, but physically has little in common with it.
"From a Navy perspective, this is the last year of funding," Duarte said. "UCAS, it's a demonstrator, so it's a different architecture, different landing system, from what UCLASS will have."
That is still a few years off, though, Duarte said. A strategic portfolio of review, for UCLASS's proposed requirements, is under review at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, he said.
He expects to release an initial request for proposals in early 2016, with a contract award in early 2017, he added.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.