Threats To Aircraft Carriers Bolster Case for Unmanned Jets

By Sandra I. Erwin
The Navy’s aircraft carriers for decades have been hailed as the most dependable means to secure U.S. military access to troublespots around the world. As floating airbases, the carriers are regarded as the ultimate “access” weapon.

The dominance of U.S. aircraft carriers, however, could be challenged one day if future enemies arm themselves with accurate, long-range missiles. Aircraft carriers are designed and equipped specifically to steer clear of these threats — their locations at sea are kept secret and they are outfitted with state-of-the-art sensors and antimissile defenses.

But naval experts now warn that a new ballistic missile developed by China could be capable of striking an aircraft carrier from as far away as 1,000 nautical miles. Although scant evidence is available so far on the true capabilities of this missile, the mere speculation on its potential deployment has naval planners fretting. If U.S. foes were suspected of owning these advanced missiles, carriers would have to stay much farther away from the enemy’s coast.

The current reach of the Navy’s fighter jets require the carriers to stay closer to shore. The workhorse of today’s air wing, the F/A-18C Hornet has a combat radius of 200 nautical miles — that is the distance from the carrier that it can reach, patrol and return with minimal fuel left. The newer and larger F/A-18E/F, has a radius of about 400 miles. The next-generation fighter, the F-35C, is expected to extend the reach to at least 600 nautical miles.

The presumed future vulnerability of the carrier has bolstered support within the Navy for carrier-based unmanned combat aircraft. Last year, the Navy unveiled the first prototype of an unpiloted combat jet, known as N-UCAS. A second aircraft is scheduled for delivery later this year. Navy officials say they want to test the batwing-shaped aircraft and eventually decide whether it should be added to carrier air wings by 2025.

“With an unrefueled combat radius on the order of 1,500 nautical miles and a maximum aerial endurance of 50 to 100 hours, the N-UCAS will greatly extend the strike reach of every carrier strike group,” says Robert O. Work, naval analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“The Chinese are already testing anti-ship ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 600 nautical miles,” Work writes in a recent study. “Moreover, operations from 600 nautical miles would put any carrier within potential range of enemy strike-fighter attacks — something that U.S. carrier forces have not had to deal with since World War II.”

To remain relevant, he says, “Future carriers will likely have to fight, at least initially, from ranges up to 1,000 to 1,500 nautical miles from a coast.”

The Navy, however, has no “requirement” to acquire an unmanned combat aircraft, according to Capt. Martin W. Deppe, program manager of the N-UCAS. “We are engaged in an assessment to see what capability gaps we see in 2025,” he says at a Washington, D.C., conference of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

“We are studying what is possible so the Navy can make a decision,” Deppe says.

The projected deployment of long-range ballistic missiles by China would validate the Navy’s need for a combat aircraft such as the N-UCAS, officials say.

In past decades, the Navy had long endurance fighter jets such as the A-6 Intruder, but it replaced them with high-performance fighters such as the Hornet and Super Hornet, which are more agile but fly shorter distances before they run out of fuel. The Navy’s variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35C, is intended to replace the A-6, but even the F-35C would still not come close to the range of the N-UCAS. The F-35C can theoretically operate from much longer ranges with aerial refueling, Work says. But because of the physical demands on their pilots, “their airborne endurance is limited to approximately 10 hours, which makes sustained long-range operations practically impossible.”

In most combat scenarios that the Navy is likely to confront, says Deppe, “endurance is huge.”
The Navy also should consider outfitting the N-UCAS with antimissile systems, says Work. “A stealthy N-UCAS armed with interceptors capable of destroying ballistic missiles during their most vulnerable boost phase might prove to be a particularly useful defensive system.”

In addition to China’s ballistic missiles, there is the threat of short-range missiles in areas such as the Persian Gulf. To reach the gulf, a carrier must travel through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway that, Navy planners contend, exposes carriers to missile strikes and suicide attacks.

“If we have the long-range airplane maybe we won’t have to go through the strait. We can stay on the good side, avoid the bottleneck, and still be able to launch airplanes,” Deppe says.

Another major selling point for the N-UCAS is that it would allow commanders aboard the carrier to remotely watch over an area and search for potential targets without having to worry that the manned surveillance jets will run out of fuel or the pilot will become fatigued. Pilots can stay in the cockpit for up to 12 hours, but an unmanned airplane would remain “on station” for 50 hours before it would require an engine inspection, says Deppe.

“This would be unprecedented for naval aviation,” he says. Aerial refueling — which current N-UCAS prototypes are not equipped to handle — would be on the Navy’s wish list if the program moves forward.

That is a big “if,” says Owen R. Coté Jr., associate director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s security studies program. “The problem is going to be the budget,” he says in an interview.

Despite a growing awareness of the importance of extended range and endurance in military operations, the N-UCAS “could be a casualty of budget fights,” says Coté.

He gives the Navy credit for coming to grips with the merits of unmanned aviation. It is a myth that Navy pilots snub the N-UCAS, says Coté. “They don’t think of it as replacing F/A-18s.” The service has accepted the fact that “persistent surveillance” is key in current conflicts and is in far greater demand these days than bomb-dropping or dog-fighting.

It is still a widely open question whether the Chinese missiles can hit ships, he says. But regardless of whether these missiles become a legitimate threat, the Navy would greatly benefit from the endurance qualities of an N-UCAS, he says. “When we got out of the A-6 business, the air wing lost range.”

The N-UCAS program is seeking $1.5 billion between now and 2013 but, unless it takes the money from other programs, the Navy is unlikely to afford it. Nonetheless, the service surprised many observers by awarding Northrop Grumman Corp. a $635 million contract to develop the two prototypes and prepare them for trials at sea aboard a carrier by 2011.

“That’s real money,” says Coté. In the coming years, he says, the N-UCAS will have to compete with other programs for funds.

Work remains skeptical that the Navy will sacrifice any of its well-entrenched aviation programs in order to pay for unmanned combat aircraft. “Despite the N-UCAS’s great promise, it is a classic disruptive technology” that will be perceived as threatening the dominance of manned aviation, he says. In his opinion, many carrier pilots are less than enthusiastic about sharing the flight deck with drones.

Echoing that sentiment is Rear Adm. William Shannon, program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. At the unmanned systems conference in Washington, he showed an artist rendering of blue-and-gold unmanned Blue Angels engaged in aerial acrobatics. The picture was titled, “Blue Angels of the Future” and it was made in jest, says Shannon. “You can imagine, there are folks who are not crazy about this picture.”

Although N-UCAS is not designed to replace, but rather to supplement, piloted jets, the introduction of unmanned combat aircraft would unsettle the status quo. One significant source of contention is the idea — espoused by the Navy’s top leadership — that unmanned aircraft are not flown, but operated. “We are trying to remove the word ‘fly’ from our UAS lexicon,” says Shannon. “We don’t fly our UAS, we direct them. We tell them to go from point A to point B.”

The operation of unmanned aircraft requires skills other than knowing how to fly a jet, he says.

 “In the Navy we look at our air controllers who direct aircraft as future operators of unmanned aircraft.”

The Navy has created a “task force” to study the skills that are required and to recommend what qualifications should be demanded of unmanned aircraft operators. It could be officers or enlisted personnel, Shannon says. The Navy’s Fire Scout drones currently are being operated by officer pilots. But that does not mean they have to go through the Navy pilot school pipeline, he says. Someone with a pilot license earned outside the Navy would qualify as well.

Experts say the Navy is likely to follow the other services in training enlisted personnel to operate drones. The Air Force restricted the job to pilots but recently it has begun to recruit and train enlisted airmen. In the Army, too, enlisted soldiers operate unmanned aircraft.

Topics: Aviation, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Navy News

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