When the X-47B Salty Dog 502 became the first drone to land on an aircraft carrier in July, Navy officials properly hailed the event as a technological milestone. Not only did the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) catapult from the flight deck of the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77) and successfully perform touch-and-go exercises and two landings, catching the tailhook wire with precision, but it did all of that autonomously, using its own robot “brain” of complex algorithms without need of a human drone operator as most other UAVs require. “It’s not often you get a chance to see the future, but that is what we got today,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus declared after the demonstration.
But the success of the X-47B landing marked more than just a technological achievement; it also injected a new element into the recently revived strategic debate over how many aircraft carriers the Navy will need in coming years. As part of an advanced surveillance-and-strike system that the Navy is developing, drones will soon be able to conduct long-range, ’round-the-clock intelligence-gathering missions and aerial attacks that will make carriers cheaper to build, less costly to operate, and far more effective, and will spawn radical changes in the way the Navy uses them. As a result, the addition of the drone to the naval aviation carrier force may prove to be a major factor in saving the flattop from becoming an endangered species.
The issue is important because, as anyone who has been following the recent budgetary developments in Washington knows, the future of the carrier is under increasing stress. Critics have contended that the Navy’s longstanding strategy of building the Fleet around a core of 11 nuclear aircraft carriers is becoming too expensive, and that the concept has been unable to keep pace with the rapidly growing array of threats from potential adversaries. And with the retirement of aging aircraft systems such as the A-6 and the S-3, some say the overall striking power of the carrier air wing has declined.
Indeed, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel disclosed on 31 July that one of the largest potential spending cuts that a “strategic choices and management review” panel suggested earlier this year was to reduce the number of carrier strike groups from the current 11 to a new level of only eight or nine. “The basic tradeoff is between capacity . . . and our ability to modernize weapons systems and to maintain our military’s technological edge,” the secretary said.
Why the Drone Landing Mattered
It’s here that the X-47B’s mid-July milestone was especially significant. The drone was developed as part of the Navy’s effort to design and test a UAV-centered unmanned combat air system. During the week that the Bush demonstration was being conducted, the Navy invited four defense contractors to submit preliminary design studies for an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system, known as UCLASS. The Navy’s hope is to conduct an open competition in Fiscal Year 2014 that will result in the deployment of an operational system by FY 20.
The key performance parameters set out in the Navy’s invitation answered several lingering questions about the operational concept for UCLASS. The system’s primary role will be to conduct long-distance intelligence-gathering, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and to improve targeting. According to published documents, the UCLASS system must be able to conduct two unrefueled orbits at 600 nautical miles or one unrefueled orbit at 1,200 nautical miles. In lightly contested environments, it must be able to conduct strike missions out to 2,000 nautical miles. The drone must be able to lift a 3,000-pound payload, made up primarily of sensors but including 1,000 pounds of air-to-surface weapons such as the 500-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMS) and the Small Diameter Bomb II. Even with such capabilities, contractors will have to keep the price-tag for UCLASS under $150 million, not including items such as sensor packages, weapons, spare parts, and training.
The modest performance parameters indicate that, despite the potential, once the UCLASS system gets off the ground, the Navy will take a cautious, step-by-step approach. The focus on the ISR and light-attack missions means that UCLASS drones do not require high speed, extreme agility, or even stealth features. This, in turn, will simplify design and production and, in a time of growing austerity, reduce cost. Just as important, the UCLASS will fill a significant void in carrier-based long-endurance/long-distance ISR, essentially doubling the duration of these operations. The limited air-to-ground capability envisioned for the UCLASS drone means that it will supplement—but not replace—the primary strike force of the carrier air wing, the F/A-18 E/F (and soon the F-35C as well).
As currently envisioned, the new system will be only a small step toward defining the carrier air wing of the future. But if it succeeds and is expanded, UCLASS—and the systems that follow it—could prove to be important elements in the debate over future missions for the modern aircraft carrier and how many CVNs to retain in the Fleet.
Reviving the Debate
It’s been a long time since there was a serious discussion about the future of the aircraft carrier. Yet, with growing frequency and intensity, Navy strategists (and periodicals such as Proceedings) have been questioning the central place given to the CVN in Navy strategy and shipbuilding plans.1
The issue that has drawn the greatest attention is how vulnerable critics say the aircraft carrier has become in the face of a number of emerging threats. China has developed new antiship ballistic missiles with guided warheads, which seem designed to target large naval vessels such as carriers.2 And potential U.S. adversaries have acquired a raft of new weapons for anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) operations, from manned aircraft and sea-skimming cruise-missiles that can be delivered from land, sea, or air to diesel-electric submarines. Taken together, the critics contend, these will place the United States’ entire surface Navy at greater risk and force the carrier strike group to take additional protective measures that could include operating farther from hostile shores or even restricting overall offense operations significantly.3
A second issue, which has gained greater prominence in the face of congressional calls for deep defense spending cuts, is the cost of naval aviation—from building and maintaining aircraft carriers to deploying their air wings and supporting vessels. The soaring cost overruns and construction delays in the production of the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the first of a new class of Navy super-carriers, have raised concerns both within the Navy and on Capitol Hill.4 At the same time, the cost of the carrier air wing is rising visibly even though it is shrinking in size.5 Navy leadership and a number of outside experts have offered a spirited defense of the Ford-class carriers.6
The third challenge—and the most central for the future of the UCLASS drone and its successors—is that of making sure that the future carrier air wing (CVW) is effective. Early assessments of the potential for UAVs to enhance the utility of the carrier air wing focused on the value of their greater range and persistence.7 As Representative J. Randy Forbes (R-VA), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces, has argued, the issues of reach and persistence remain the most serious weaknesses of the CVW—particularly in the face of the Obama administration’s new, more intense focus on Asia.
[T]he long distances in the region, combined with A2/AD challenges, raise questions about the future strike power of the Carrier Air-Wing (CVW). As we posture our forces, is the planned CVW of the 2020s structured to meet the range, persistence, stealth, ISR, and payload demands that will be required to operate in this theater?8
Up in the Air
The CVW of the near-future also is in flux. The F/A-18 E/F will play a significant role in both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions for the next several decades. The F-35C, long styled as the eventual centerpiece of the air wing, soon will be deployed. The EF-18G Growler is on the decks and will be upgraded with the Next-Generation Jammer. The Navy plans to acquire 75 E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes, which provide a leap forward in airborne ISR and networked fire control, but production of these is slowing. Finally, the MH-60R will provide a substantial increase in the CVW’s antisubmarine warfare capabilities.
Yet, if UCLASS is to be anything more than a show horse, it must pull its weight in the continuing evolution of the CVW. This means that its designers will have to address some of the challenges facing the carrier and the air wing and also set the stage for exploiting the full potential of the new Ford-class CVN.
The Navy’s invitation to contractors clearly is designed to produce a UCLASS drone system that will be a workhorse for the CVW. In its ISR role, UCLASS will significantly expand the carrier strike group’s ability to see, assess, and respond to threats. This is of particular importance in the context of the Asia-Pacific pivot as well as the proliferation of longer-range antiship missiles. Equally important, UCLASS will make it possible for a single air wing to conduct ’round-the-clock air and maritime surveillance. Finally, in its light-attack role, UCLASS will expand both the reach and flexibility of the air wing, allowing the more capable F/A-18 E/Fs and F-35s to be employed where their advanced features are most appropriate. The ability of the UCLASS to loiter while carrying heavier weapons than a Hellfire missile will be especially valuable in low-intensity conflicts, where exquisite precision strikes have become the norm.9
Flexibility will be another important attribute for the winning UCLASS design. Given rapid advances in sensors, weapons, and networking, the UCLASS needs to have inherent flexibility and some room for growth to allow the carrier air wings to experiment with it and incorporate lessons learned from the system’s initial employment.
Over the longer-term, for the current challenges to the continuation of the aircraft carrier as the Navy’s primary ship, designers of the UCLASS will have to integrate the new program into the operational policies of the carrier air wing and exploit the inherent strengths of the Ford-class CVNs. In his speech marking the successful carrier landing of the X-47B, Navy Secretary Mabus suggested how unmanned systems will address all three of the challenges to the aircraft carrier.
The operational unmanned aircraft that will follow it will radically change the way presence and combat power is delivered from aircraft carriers by conducting surveillance and strike missions at extreme distances and over very long periods of time. With this advanced technology, we will put fewer sailors and Marines in harm’s way, and we will push the area of potential action even farther from the decks of our ships.
And it’s more efficient. Because unmanned carrier aircraft do not require flights to maintain pilot proficiency, they will deploy only for operational missions, saving fuel costs and extending the service life of the aircraft.
Not only will future carrier air wings be more combat- effective, they will cost less to build, and having less- expensive airframes means we can build more and use them differently, like developing swarm tactics and performing maneuvers that require more G-force than a human body can withstand.10
Other observers have gone even further, suggesting that the success of the UCLASS effort would not only radically alter how the CVW operates, but would change the character, mission, and roles of the carrier itself. The next-generation UCLASS drone will have to have a range equal to that of the current proposed design, but it also will have to carry a significantly larger payload and have the ability to deploy long-range air-to-ground weapons. This would allow the CVW to engage targets at or beyond the range of current and projected antiship ballistic and cruise missiles. A large payload capacity could also allow the UCLASS to fill a yawning gap in current CVW capabilities—air-to-air refueling of both manned and other unmanned platforms.11
It is also worth observing that none of these missions requires a high degree of autonomy, the Holy Grail for many advocates of accelerated deployment of unmanned aerial systems. Complex missions will remain the domain of manned systems for decades to come.12
Ultimately, future generations of UCLASS drones may need to incorporate stealth characteristics as well. However, by that time weapons-makers may have developed an entirely new means of detecting and cloaking airborne systems. And it’s no longer clear whether we should be focusing our efforts to improve capabilities and tactics to counter A2/AD threats on the platform or on the payload. As a result, it would be a mistake to embark on the design of a next-generation stealthy UCLASS drone system prematurely.
A Ford in the Carrier’s Future?
Even so, it’s possible to envision exploiting the design improvements in the Ford-class carrier, with its tremendous interior volume and enormous power-generation capability, to help turn nuclear aircraft carriers into mother ships for swarms of unmanned aerial systems and long-range missiles. One aspect of such an evolution would be to pursue options for designing future unmanned aerial systems so as to introduce entirely new ways of conducting operations aboard flattops that would permit carrier air wings to launch more sorties with fewer people. That would be a big plus as well.13
All of these are complex challenges, and it doubtless will take time, effort, and a lot of experimentation to engineer the kind of UCLASS technology that will fit the Navy’s needs—and a timetable for deploying it throughout the carrier force. But the demonstration on board the Bush does show clearly that the drone can enhance air operations at sea in a way that wasn’t envisioned even a decade ago and that hasn’t yet been fully appreciated either by the Navy as a whole or by civilian policymakers.
When it is, the aircraft carrier will get a new lease on life.
1. Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Reidel, “Land Warriors: Why the United States Should Open more Bases in the Middle East,” Foreign Affairs, 2 July 2013, and a rejoinder by Stacie Pettyjohn and Evan Braden Montgomery, “By Land and By Sea: Balanced Forces for a Complex Region,” Foreign Affairs, 19 July 2013. CAPT Henry J. Hendrix, USN, “At What Cost a Carrier?” Center for a New American Security, Washington, DC, March 2013. CAPT Robert Rubel, USN (Ret.), “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” Naval War College Review, Autumn 2011.
2. Bill Gertz, “China has carrier-killer missile, U.S. admiral says,” the Washington Times, 27 December 2010. Rebecca Grant, “A Specter Haunts the Carrier, Air Force Magazine, vol. 92, no. 12, December 2009. Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, CRS Report RL33153. Loren B. Thompson, “Can China Sink a U.S. Aircraft Carrier?” Forbes, 23 January 2012.
3. Anthony H. Cordesman, Ashley Hess, and Nicholas S. Yarosh, “Chinese Military Modernization and Force Development: A Western Perspective,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC, 25 July 2013. LTC Andrew F. Krepinevich, USA (Ret.), “Why Air-Sea Battle?” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, DC, 2010.
4. O’Rourke, “Navy Force Structure and Shipbuilding Plans: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, CRS Report RL32665, 3 July 2013, especially 18. Tony Capaccio, “Aircraft Carrier’s Cost Draw U.S. Lawmakers’ Concern,” Bloomberg News, 21 May 2013. O’Rourke, “Navy Ford-Class (CVN-78) Aircraft Carrier Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” RL20643, Congressional Research Service, April 19, 2013.
5. Hendrix, op, cit
6. Kris Osborne, “Navy Leaders Defend Ford-Class Carrier Program,” Military.com, 30 April 2013.
7. Thomas P. Ehrhard and Robert O. Work, “Range, Persistence, Stealth, and Networking: The Case for a Carrier-Based Unmanned Combat Air System,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, DC, 2008.
8. Randy Forbes, “Questioning the 2020 CVW,” June 2012 at blog.usni.org/2012/06/22/questioning-the-2020-cvw.
9. David Deptula, “Drones Best Weapons We’ve Got For Accuracy, Control, Oversight; Critics Don’t Get It,” Breaking Defense, 5 February 2013.
10. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, “Technology on Approach: Unmanned aircraft at sea greatly extend the Navy’s reach and sustainability,” San Diego Union-Tribune, 12 July 2013.
11. Forbes, “What is the potential and what are the challenges the Navy faces in fielding a UCLASS to the fleet?,” 28 June 2012, at http://www.informationdissemination.net/2012/06/what-is-potential-and-what-are.html.
12. Daniel Taylor, “Beyond Drones,” Seapower, vol. 56, no. 7, July 2013.
13. Osborne, “Future Carriers Built to Carry Drone Fleets,” DefenseTech.org, 19 July 2013.