Unmanned Aircraft Have Yet to Show They Deserve a Spot on Navy Carrier Decks
Unmanned aviation has been a growth industry in the U.S. military for nearly a decade. Thousands of drones have been acquired by the armed services. But one place where you will not find a UAV is on the deck of a Navy aircraft carrier.
Naval air wings are not ready to embrace unmanned aircraft, at least until the Navy builds a UAV that proves its worth in the inhospitable environment of a carrier deck, said Vice Adm. Mark I. Fox, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command.
Although drones are regarded as valuable assets for war commanders on the ground, they still have not demonstrated they can survive the rigors of carrier operations, or that they can substantially enhance the productivity of an air wing, Fox said Jan. 26 during a meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C.
Fox, a career naval aviator who has flown jet fighters off 15 different aircraft carriers, disputed assertions that the tactical aviation community has been less-than-enthusiastic about UAVs.
“I wouldn’t agree with that characterization,” said Fox. Navy air wing commanders, rather than put blind faith in a given technology, are more concerned about whether a system provides the “right tools to do the job,” Fox said.
UAVs are still an “emerging technology” going through similar growing pains to what manned aviation experienced in the 1920s, he said.
In those early days of tactical aviation, airplanes’ role was seen only in the context of how they supported the battleship. It took many years, and the push of key visionaries, to turn aircraft into critical war weapons, he noted. “With UAVs, we’re in a similar place.”
Unmanned aircraft have a place in naval aviation, he added. “That said, there’s still an enormous amount of merit in having somebody in the cockpit making decisions about whether you employ ordnance or not.”
For long-endurance intelligence gathering missions, UAVs are ideal, he said. He praised the Navy’s broad area maritime surveillance UAV, known as BAMS. “We love” that aircraft, he said. But BAMS are launched and operated from land, not from ships. “I’m a voracious consumer of ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance],” he said.
Will we ever see combat UAVs launched from carriers? Probably so, but not until they can prove their mettle, Fox said. “Anything that takes off and lands on an aircraft carrier has to be pretty robust,” he said. Salt water is tough on any piece of hardware. “You test something in the desert and it works great. But the maritime world is a harsh and unforgiving environment.”
The Navy is now developing a combat UAV, theX-47B, that is being designed to operate off carrier decks. Tests are forthcoming. Fox won’t make any predictions. “We shouldn’t be wedded to anything other than how do we do our job better,” he said.
Another concern is money. It’s not yet clear how much these combat UAVs will cost, or whether the Navy will have the funds to acquire them, given the current budget pressures, said Fox. Nonetheless, naval aviators will remain open-minded, he said. “I wouldn’t characterize naval aviation as being necessarily recalcitrant.”
Over the past decade, he noted, advances in naval aviation have come not from technology but from piloting skills. In current wars, where the priority is to avoid civilian casualties, “more judgment is being demanded from the people on the ground and in the cockpit,” Fox said.
Naval aviators don’t just drop satellite- or laser-guided bombs. They also fly low to the ground and target enemy fighters with small-caliber weapons. “They strafe at night in mountainous terrain,” said Fox. “This is different. Conventional forces today are doing things that only high-end special operations forces used to do.”