Expanding maritime threats, including China’s ambitious naval expansion, rising U.S. shipbuilding costs, and Congress’s reluctance to fund a significantly larger fleet, are increasing pressure on the U.S. Navy’s ability to protect the nation’s vital interests.1 “More of the same” when it comes to naval power will not suffice. Only a disruptive application of technology—a force multiplier that will significantly change the way the United States projects air and maritime power—will allow the Navy to overcome these challenges. Fielding a new class of warships that can fully exploit the largely untapped combat potential of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) would go a long way toward answering the call.
All-UAV aircraft carriers (call them “CVQs”) could combine different advanced technologies to deliver combat power greater than the sum of their parts. Recent advances such as autonomous fighter aircraft software, artificial intelligence and man-machine teaming, electric catapults and ship propulsion, stealth technology (for both aircraft and surface ships), automated aircraft landing systems, and robotic assembly-line technologies together could result in a warship able to punch well above its weight in a highly contested maritime environment.
Current thinking about unmanned naval aviation diminishes its combat power. Today, UAVs must either operate with compromised performance because of the need to take off vertically from surface ships or play a secondary role as part of a traditional nuclear-powered aircraft carrier’s (CVN’s) manned air wing. Ships focused primarily on the combat employment of UAVs, however, could provide transformative capabilities like those associated with the introduction of dedicated aircraft carriers between World Wars I and II.
With fully developed doctrine for their use, all-UAV carriers and their associated air wings could be employed to their full capability. One way to ensure this is to require CVQs to be commanded by UAV-specialized officers, just as manned-aircraft carriers have been commanded by aviators.
Design Is Critical
The design of all-UAV carriers should maximize the use of existing systems and minimize the number of high-risk technologies. Fortunately, many of the individual technologies and concepts that could support a CVQ already are under development, including electric catapults and propulsion; stealth technology for both UAVs and the ship itself; vertical aircraft recovery at sea; vertical landings of rockets at sea; robotic assembly-line technologies; artificial intelligence applied to unmanned aerial combat; and hypervelocity projectiles and directed-energy antimissile defensive weapons.2
An all-UAV carrier—freed from the constraints of manned aircraft operations—would be very different from existing aircraft carriers. Aircraft recovery could be accomplished vertically (and tail-first) using landing pads, with subsequent aircraft handling and storage conducted internal to the ship. UAV launch could be accomplished by automated, elevator-fed catapults. Without a typical aircraft carrier flight deck, installation of a vertical launch system for missile and other defensive systems might be possible, providing organic self-defense and minimizing the need for escorts. These differences could allow for a smaller, stealthier, and more easily defended ship. The CVQ could operate at lower risk than a CVN within future contested maritime environments. Ultimately, it might take the form of a larger 40,000-ton version of a Zumwalt (DDG-1000)-class destroyer.
Mission Demand Is High
CVQs could help deter an adversary by penetrating a contested area and delivering a variety of capabilities and fires early in the fight. A recent future fleet architecture study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) proposed separating the deployed U.S. fleet into a Deterrence Force and a Maneuver Force. The Deterrence Force would provide “prompt, high-capacity fires to deter an adversary seeking a rapid fait accompli, such as China or Russia.”3 More specifically, the Deterrence Force in the western Pacific would be made up of proposed “CVLs”—light, conventionally powered aircraft carriers derived from LHA/LHD-class ships, “freeing CVNs to focus on high-end integrated multi-carrier operations as part of the Maneuver Force.”4 Strike-fighters from the CVLs “would conduct strike, surface warfare (SUW), and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations to help deny Chinese aggression inside the South and East China Seas or attack Chinese naval and other targets outside the first island chain.”5
CVQs are a better solution than expensive, manned CVLs. UAVs today—such as Predator and Reaper—possess significant strike, SUW, and ISR capabilities and already are performing missions with lower risk and personnel demands than manned air wings. Over time, as UAV capabilities continue to improve, counterair capabilities will be developed. UAVs of sufficient sophistication likely would excel at the counterair mission given their probable great stealth. Of course, CVQs could be useful in all high-threat contested areas, not just the Pacific theater considered by CSBA.
The employment of an all-UAV carrier in high-end naval warfare could allow the Navy to further leverage new technology to provide much greater combat capabilities than previously seen from a similar-sized warship. Most significantly, given its greatly reduced manpower demands because of automation, an all-UAV carrier eventually could be capable of 24-hour-a-day flight operations. A recent McKinsey study of work automation noted “performing physical activities or operating machinery in a predictable environment”—such as with aircraft handling, refueling, and rearming—are tasks “most susceptible to automation.”6 A clean-sheet CVQ design would make it possible to automate many aircraft-handling tasks to overcome the single-deck crew constraints of a traditional manned air wing’s personnel complement.
The absence of physiological limits associated with human pilots also would allow naval UAVs to conduct evasive maneuvers untenable to manned aircraft, to be catapult-launched at higher g-loads, and perhaps to launch independent of wind direction or even with their wings folded, akin to most ship-launched cruise missiles. Tail-sitting vertical landing UAVs (as planned for the Navy’s TERN UAV program) might even land with their wings folded, saving more space. And while such vertical landing might compromise performance, automated cradles could enable designers to reduce UAV weight and complexity by doing away with the need for wheeled landing gear. With no need for human eyesight, UAVs could land in near-zero-visibility conditions, just as most modern commercial airliners can land on autopilot in poor weather and visibility.7
The extraordinary flight endurance already associated with unmanned aircraft could be a huge force multiplier. Defensive counterair patrols, airborne electronic warfare (AEW) aircraft, and antisubmarine hunters could stay in the air and on station, refueled as necessary, to the limits of engine oil capacity or until maintenance is required, with flight times measured in days rather than hours. Loitering UAVs could operate as semi-permanent communications nodes, providing high-altitude line-of-sight connections to other UAVs or to ships in the region in the case of denied satellite communications.
The CVQ itself could function as a “lily pad” for non-embarked UAVs to fly in, refuel, and go aloft again to patrol elsewhere or gather for a larger strike than the embarked UAV air wing could otherwise muster. Loitering CVQ-based UAV tankers could provide fuel to transiting manned strike aircraft flying in from CVNs kept in lower-risk areas.
In addition, the lack of human pilots on board naval UAVs would allow commanders greater flexibility to take risks with the aircraft in peacetime or in war. Flight operations could take place without plane guard helicopters or escort ships and without rescue swimmers on call. UAVs could be sent on one-way strike missions to high-priority targets at twice their normal combat radius, and when out of ammunition could even ram threat aircraft or conduct “kamikaze” strikes against surface ships. Aircraft could fly with minimal fuel reserves and launch in adverse weather conditions with a low likelihood of recovery if required. Combat losses to the air wing would have little to no effect on air wing morale, as losses could be replaced by flying more UAVs out to the ship, from other theaters, or even from compatible allied UAV fleets. Lessons learned from UAVs lost in combat—developed from rapid analysis of available telemetry—could generate software patches to improve and implement new tactics potentially faster than human pilots could train to do so.
An obvious objection to the employment of unmanned combat aircraft in high-end naval warfare, in what may well be a communications-denied environment, comes from moral or policy arguments against the use of lethal autonomous weapons. The use of autonomous unmanned combat aircraft at sea, however, would break little new ground in the maritime and air environment. The U.S. armed forces already have in service weapon systems such as the Aegis air and missile defense system, Patriot surface-to-air missile system, the Phalanx close-in weapon system, homing torpedoes, the encapsulated torpedo antisubmarine mine system, and antiship cruise missiles that are lethal, and essentially autonomous in some operating modes. The assignment of UAVs to conduct antiair, strike, or surface warfare missions against designated targets or within designated areas would differ little from the way today’s guided weapon systems are expected to function in high-end naval and air warfare.
The technical risks associated with making such operational and technological leaps create additional concerns with an all-UAV carrier concept. But most of the individual technologies required have been in development and many are in use. The biggest risk may be in integration and testing. The CSBA future fleet architecture discussed using the existing fleet of large-deck amphibious ships as a test platforms for the CVL concept. The CVQ concept could be tested in the same way. Amphibious ships could serve as prototype platforms, with add-on modular vertical landing and automated handling systems, bolt-on electric catapults, and UAV command facilities installed to test the concept, validate procedures and doctrine, and more rapidly put these capabilities into the hands of warfighters.
Potential cyber risks to naval UAVs—given how dependent even manned modern combat aircraft are on computers and networks—are hardly unique to unmanned aircraft, and defenses must be carefully designed into UAVs just as they are in all U.S. military systems.8 Given the potential warfighting benefits, the risks associated with the all-UAV carrier concept seem worth taking. The good news is that the technological and doctrinal problems posed by this sort of wide-ranging and creative operational challenge are just the sort U.S. engineers, sailors, and airmen excel at solving.
Fielding an all-UAV carrier would require a paradigm shift in the application of naval and air power but would amplify the U.S. Navy’s capability to protect our nation’s interests in the western Pacific and across the globe.
1. James E. Fanell and Scott Cheney-Peters, “Defending against a Chinese Navy of 500 Ships,” The Wall Street Journal, 19 January 2017, www.wsj.com/articles/defending-against-a-chinese-navy-of-500-ships-1484848417.
2. Tomas Kellner, “This Ship Has Sailed: U.S. Navy Commissions an All-Electric Stealth Destroyer Zumwalt for Service,” GE Reports, 15 October 2016, www.gereports.com/u-s-navy-commissions-service-electric-stealth-destroyer/. David Sharp, “How Stealthy Is Navy’s New Destroyer? It Needs Reflectors,” AP Big Story, 10 April 2016, bigstory.ap.org/article/a41a43bed22349238ec1f91f776445e1/how-stealthy-navys-new-destroyer-it-needs-reflectors. Kris Osborn, “Revealed: America’s Lethal Stealth Drones of Tomorrow,” The National Interest, 27 April 2016, nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/revealed-americas-lethal-stealth-drones-tomorrow-15958. Loren Grush, “SpaceX Successfully Lands Its Rocket on a Floating Drone Ship for the First Time,” The Verge, 8 April 2016, www.theverge.com/2016/4/8/11392138/spacex-landing-success-falcon-9-rocket-barge-at-sea. Bryan Clark and Mark Gunzinger, “Winning the Salvo Competition: Rebalancing America’s Air and Missile Defenses,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: 23, 20 May 2016.
3. Bryan Clark et al, “Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture For The United States Navy,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 23 January 2017.
4. Ibid., 72.
5. Ibid., 62.
6. Michael Chui et al, “Where machines could replace humans—and where they can’t (yet),” McKinsey Quarterly (July 2016), www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/digital-mckinsey/our-insights/where-machines-could-replace-humans-and-where-they-cant-yet.
7. Kevin Garrison, “Categories of ILS,” AVWeb, 8 November 2014, www.avweb.com/news/features/Categories-of-the-ILS-223077-1.html.
8. Marina Malenic, “Software Failures, Cyber Vulnerability Still Plague F-35,” IHS Jane’s 360, 24 March 2016, www.janes.com/article/59027/software-failures-cyber-vulnerability-still-plague-f-35.
Commander Shugart commanded the USS Olympia (SSN-17), deploying to the western Pacific and completing an extensive shipyard dry dock maintenance period. While ashore, he served as deputy submarine special operations officer at Commander, Task Force Six Nine/Commander, Sixth Fleet; and chief of the Nuclear Strike Branch, Nuclear Operations Division, on the staff of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the time of writing, he was a Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for New American Security.