Panel Debates Future of Carrier-based Drones

MC-4Q Triton

Last year at this time, the Navy made history off the Virginia coast when a sleek, computer-controlled drone landed on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

But the future of unmanned aircraft in the Navy is still up for debate, as evidenced Wednesday in a hearing chaired by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake.

The Navy envisions a carrier-based, unmanned aircraft as a way to gather intelligence, patrol around the ship, spot targets for fighter pilots and have limited firepower. Forbes and other critics say these aircraft should pack more of a wallop and be able to penetrate enemy defenses -- essentially working in tandem with manned aircraft.

Just as last year's successful landing, the stakes are being described in historical terms.

"This is a debate not about a program, but the future of carrier-based aviation," said Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., a member of Forbes' seapower and projection forces panel of the House Armed Services Committee.

Two panels testified Wednesday. First came defense analysts who raised questions about the Navy's program, followed by military leaders who suggested those concerns were overblown.

The hearing did not result in any conclusions. Further testimony is expected in closed sessions because portions of the program are classified. The eventual outcome will affect thousands of sailors on aircraft carriers and carrier air wings, many of whom live in Hampton Roads.

A carrier-based, unmanned aircraft that's primarily an eye in the sky would be redundant, said Robert Martinage, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

The Navy already intends to purchase more than 60 unmanned MQ-4C Tritons to provide surveillance for aircraft carrier strike groups, he said. Other unmanned craft can complement that ability. That view was echoed by Shawn Brimley, of the Center for a New American Security.

The Navy's current vision "will result in a platform that fails to add striking power and duplicates other systems," he said, and it will "go down an investment path that wastes time and money."

"This is an area where I don't think we can afford to get it wrong," Brimley said.

The analysts pointed to the threat posed by China as a reason for more offensive-minded unmanned aircraft. China has developed long-range anti-ship missiles -- including a so-called "carrier killer" -- that would force an aircraft carrier farther out to sea to protect itself.

The current Navy request for proposal, while classified, is for an unmanned craft that has light striking power and moderate stealth, said Brimley. What the Navy should develop is an aircraft that can be refueled in flight, can penetrate enemy defenses and can knock out missiles, radar systems or ships.

Martinage put it another way: "It needs to find and hit a target without being shot down," he said.

Brimley said the U.S. has enjoyed an advantage in unmanned systems, but that won't last forever.

"I see this as a window of opportunity, and a finite window," he said.

Martinage cited another reason to settle on a long-range strategy now. The Navy wants an unmanned craft that can fly for 14 hours without being refueled. Designing such an aircraft will require a design that will permanently limit its ability to evade radar and carry a larger weapons payload.

"You're going to be stuck forever," he said.

But in the panel that followed, Navy and Air Force officials defended its vision of the program, formally known as the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS.

The program "strikes a balance between performance and affordability," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Joseph Guastella, deputy director of requirements for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Vice Adm. Paul A. Grosklags, who works in research, defense and acquisitions, disputed the idea that the Navy's version is not flexible. Defense contractors have been asked to look at accommodating additional payloads, and the aircraft is required to have access points, or hard points, to carry external fuel tanks, sensors or weapons.

"We are ensuring all of these capabilities are built in on day one," he said. "We want to ensure it is not a dead end solution for the carrier or the joint force."

Forbes asked whether recent developments around the world, such as China's military buildup or Russia's incursion into Ukraine, should prompt the Navy to take a second look at the program.

"We are building in the ability to adapt this platform to the missions of the future," Grosklags said.

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