A new report drafted by the well-connected Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments makes a strong case for an accelerated development of unmanned combat aircraft for carrier battle groups.
With a simple equation, Tom Ehrhard and Robert Work of CSBA lay out the benefits of UCASs for the CVW, saying the increase in range and stealth drones bring to the maritime strike fight are inarguable...
The logic supporting accelerated development of a carrier-based UCAS is straight-forward. Using manned aircraft, current CVWs are optimized to strike targets at ranges between 200 to 450 nautical miles (nm) from their carriers. Moreover, carrier aircraft lack persistence. That is to say, they are limited to missions no more than ten hours long, and they more typically fly missions that last only a few hours. In contrast, a carrier-based UCAS could mount strikes out to 1,500 nm from a carrier without refueling. Just as importantly, because its mission duration is not limited by human endurance, with aerial refueling a UCAS will be able to stay airborne for 50 to 100 hours five to ten times longer than a manned aircraft. In other words, with multiple aerial refuelings, a UCAS could establish persistent surveillance-strike combat air patrols (CAPs) at ranges well beyond 3,000 nm, and strike point targets at far longer ranges.
Ehrhard, a former Air Force officer who wrote his PhD thesis on UAVs, and Work, a former Marine artillery officer and one of the sharpest minds in amphibious warfare development, are adamant that the Navy not fall victim to its usual manned-fighter biases and deprive the UCAS program of the funding it needs to keep on track. They contend the future of the CVW will be undercut if carrier-based UAV development is sidelined and call on Congress to step in and marshal the program through the sea service.
With the many competing programs now fighting for the attention of naval aviatorsnot to mention the Navys historical ambivalence regarding unmanned aircraft systemsthere is a danger that the UCAS-D program will suffer in DoN budget deliberations and be progressively delayed. If this happens, the long-term operational and tactical effectiveness of the US carrier fleet may be at risk. Congress and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) should therefore take a direct interest in fostering this program and monitoring its progress.
Work and Erhard understand the arguments against UCAS programs, including the complexity of integrating a drone with manned aircraft on the flight deck and banking on unreliable technology with so many competing fiscal priorities like shipbuilding.
But both analysts say the Navys participation in aerial robot wars will make them more relevant in the future and keep the Air Force from passing the carrier strike group by on the way to the fight.
The bottom line is this: the N-UCASs unique combination of great unrefueled range and dramatically improved endurance and stealth could transform US aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings from operational strike systems with outstanding global mobility and relatively limited tactical reach and persistence into globally mobile, long-range persistent surveillance strike systems effective across multiple 21st century security challenges. To make this potentially revolutionary transformation possible, Congress, OSD, and the Navy must take the necessary first step and support both an expanded N-UCAS carrier demonstration program and technology maturation effort to safely integrate these unmanned surveillance/strike systems into carrier flight deck and strike operations.