The Small Wars Journal recently detailed the winners and losers of the proposed defense budget cuts. Thanks to President Obama’s new realignment towards the Pacific, the SWJ categorized both the Navy and drones as winners in the budget battle. With increased money flowing to both, new developments in drone technology will, or should, cause to the Navy to at least rethink its strategy.

The new threat to America’s Navy is China’s anti-ship ballistic missile with a range of over 900 miles, according to a Naval War College paper “Using the Land to Control the Sea.” China’s military believes the new missile will keep carriers farther from its coast. While China may or may not have the ability to strike a carrier 900 miles away today, we can assume that their missile technology will only improve. It’s possible that China could destroy one eleventh of our carrier fleet, and threaten the lives of 5,000 servicemen, with one missile.

Carriers will not go the way of the battleship anytime soon; the ability to launch aircraft off ships is valuable in any war. However, is it better to have dozens of smaller carriers specialized in launching UAVs and helos or fewer super-carriers capable of launching both UAVs and manned aircraft?

I think that there is more room for improvement in UAV technology. When I think about the technological advances in my lifetime, robotics, computers, and wireless technologies come to mind. These developments allowed for the increased reliance in unmanned vehicles and aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, considering the rising cost of developing the fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, policymakers will be loath to develop the sixth generation. The Navy is already seriously considering using UAVs as tankers circling above the carrier.

I will never fly a plane off a carrier, so I won’t pretend to understand how to. But I do know that drones weigh significantly less than piloted aircraft. The carrier landing X-47A prototype weighs 5,500 lbs fully loaded, compared to over 50,000 lbs for the F-35. Lighter planes need less space to take-off (thanks to varying cable resistance, the landing distance is about the same regardless of weight). Relying more on UAVs should enable our Navy to develop more, smaller carriers. Since drones are typically smaller, we could still have the same number of aircraft on a UAV-dominated, light carrier. In addition to having more carriers with which to promote America’s interests abroad, losing one of these ships will mitigate the impact on the overall war effort in a major power war.

Nonetheless, certain missions still require human eyes in the sky. Drones are most useful during super dull or super dangerous missions, but a pilot can provide a better perspective, and presumably a better response, in constantly changing conditions. In sum, I don’t know what the future of naval aviation will be, but I think we would regret leaving any option off the table.

Posted by jjames in Navy, Strategy, Tactics

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  • GIMP

    I know that the only thing that matters is that there are billions of dollars to be made selling these drones to DoD, and that overrides all operational effectiveness concerns, but really?

    These things are great in a fight against cavemen in man-dresses armed with small arms, rockets, and rudementary SA systems, to surveil Iraq and the Los Angeles metropolitan area. But against a near peer competitor? Seriously?

    These things require us to shut down surveillance radars so we don’t kill the links that keep them under control and flying. That’s just friendly interference, never mind that any adversary will specifically target them.

    Future conflicts will be carried out with less control of the EM spectrum, less ability to communicate with “higher headquarters” for decisions, less GPS, less reliance on data links – not more.

    If we have any plans to confront adversaries with military forces in our future, we’ll be depending upon the spectacularly well trained individual who knows ROE and commander’s intent cold and applies it without having to wait for permission to engage, because we’ll not have the unchallenged dominance of the EM spectrum we enjoy while fighting ill equipped individual in their occupied territories.

    Drones are a great plan for making contractors rich, but a lousy plan to win against anyone but a bunch of civilians running around with guns.

  • Byron

    Concur with Gimp. Over-reliance on tech creates a critical vulnerability.

  • Mike M.

    Not only that, but sawing the cockpit off an airplane and parking it on the ground does NOT produce an exception to the laws of aerodynamics. Weight and size are determined by payload, range, and technology base.

    And X-47A isn’t going aboard the carrier, the X-47B is. It weighs 44,000 lbs.

  • Byron

    44,000 pds…that’s getting up there in Tomcat country.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    The assumption that an immature (or cutting edge, or transformational) weapons system will stay the same size as the MK1 when you get out to the Mk15+ flies in the face of what has happened for the last two centuries. Fuel=payload=range=loiter=speed=fuel, and economies of scale and increases of capabilities define the compromises that are made for mission optimization.

    You can’t do more with less, you only can do less with less. When the interactions rear up their ugly head, you realize… it’s complicated.

    Then there is the fact that Mother Nature, the bitch, sides with the hidden flaw and the unexamined assumption…


  • Byron

    Weather…wonder how the drone is going to do when the deck is pitching +/- 20 ft, and yawing back and forth like a drunk lady of the evening? Autoland?

    Hope they build plent of them…

  • JAV

    As if “cheaper, smaller” carriers are less expensive. They still need escorts, they still need crews. While I could support skewing the numbers to more LHDs vs CVNs, I don’t think it would lead to substantially more ships.

  • Andy (JADAA)

    The salient points in the the objections to the obsession with UAV’s have all been made by previous posters. But I think the default mantra of “do not assign to conspiracy that which can be explained as stupidity” applies here. Since the early 1990’s, the overwhelming chant by the bean-counters in the Beltway is that “our military would be [fill in buzzwords HERE] if it weren’t for all those expensive people that are eating up our budget.” Now that is, in actuality, a falsehood, but reality and the Beltway are pretty much detached from one another. With that mentality firmly in place, the siren song of UAV’s is a natural tune to their ears. They weren’t sold UAV’s by evil corporations, they asked for them! Last I checked, businesses survive by selling their customers what they ask for.

    As someone who is a Life Member of the Association of Old Crows, I can tell you that those in the business of knowing how to make stuff like this work, and not work, are very much unimpressed by the “happy talk” spilling out from those who made this decision and who are again lopping off appendages we had to regrow in the last decade after the unilateral disarmament of the mid-1990’s. History is a cruel teacher, and she does not like to teach the same lesson twice.

  • Byron

    You’re not going to fly a 44,000 pd aircraft from a short deck amphib without cats and arresting gear…

  • Matt H.

    Gimp said something in particular that I think needs to be addressed, the issue of “control”. Who says the drones of the future will be “controlled” by operators from the ground? The laptop I am writing with has thousands of independent programs that are executing decision processes without my input. A Rhoomba doesn’t need my help while I sit on the couch and avoid doing the vacuuming myself. As the drones get smaller and the swarm gets bigger, more and more control functions will be automated out of necessity, just as we have done with every other system. Electronic interference won’t matter when the drone is hardened with a large suite of varied sensors and an internal way of making decisions. Also, remember that although pilots have “chutzpa” computers lack, meat can’t take as many G’s as silicon.

  • once again, here I am to say….lift those drone carriers OUT of the water, ie: AIRSHIPS.
    Recall, I do not mean “blimps” or “dirigibles”

    Airship carriers; with UCAVs. Fully rigid hulls, amphibious.
    600′ long x 360′ wide x 150 height. 17 Million cubic feet. 300 ton payload. Able to hover, (ASW)fly over blue/green/brown water, ice, or continents. Speeds to 140kts. unlimited range/linger ability (solar/biofuel powered)

    no wake, no sonar signature. Extremely little infra-red, acoustic, or radar signiture. (no escorts needed)

    handful of crew needed. No catapult or arresting gear needed.

    less expensive to build, maintain, man, operate than past carriers; and will negate any advantage that BASM might have over water borne craft.

    time to reconsider USS Macon/USS Akron using todays’ technology, not that of 1930’s

  • This is a timely piece, but does not deliver what the title describes—is a lighter carrier the change?

    Campbell’s comment at 1641, however is fascinating. I just finished M. Dick Van Orden’s The Hindenburg Enigma (an fictionalized account of the Hindenburg tragedy—an entertaining read that reads like a movie script). I like your idea, but given the sad state of affairs in our navy’s ability to cogently define requirements, I won’t hold my breath for anything quite so revolutionary. Like an old friend likes to say about the USN, “The navy never lets progress get in the way of tradition…”

  • Matt

    If they can’t figure out how to replace the U2 with a UAV why would we be considering replacing fighting planes?

    Another good analogy is the F-16 vs. A-10 debate. The A-10 is way more useful for ground support yet we are once again going to replace them with the F-35? And the F-35 is useful for what? a high-end war with China that somehow won’t go nuclear anyways? Cause the last thing we will ever do is fight another ground war…yea no more ground wars! History repeating itself? Build 179 F-35’s (to replace the F-22’s that are so nifty they choke the pilots) and then build 2,500 A-10’s so we can save a few 0’s and be ready for an actual fight. The real kicker is we are building some supposed badd a plane that we are going to then give everyone? Are our allies the kind that would never switch sides?…we defy gravity on so many levels no wonder we are bankrupt.

  • Byron

    Campbell: please explain to me how a UCAV with stealth airfoil is going to a) take off from an airship moving approx. 120 mph with no catapults and b) land on same with no arresting gear. Also, how large will the airship have to be to have a squadron (for argument sake, we’ll call it 12) of UCAVs weighing 44,000 pds (is that fuel and weapons? I’ll be nice, call it just ready and loaded for bear)My calculator makes that to be 264 tons. Now we get to add in extra fuel (call that another 100 tons) and ordinance (figure 12 sorties for 12 aircraft, each carrying 2 tons of ordinance) which comes out to 676 tons just for fuel, aircraft and ordinance. Add in 50 crew specialists to service and arm the aircraft (average 170 pds)for another couple of tons, pluse specialized test equipment and tools, plus extra berthing and messing, extra water…) Call it an even 700 tons just to field 12 aircraft for 12 sorties. Now tell me…how much can this airship lift?

  • Byron

    OH! would it be as large as say…a CVN?

  • Matt H.

    Can I say I love the idea of a dirigible drone-base? I want to be a ZWO: Zeppelin Warfare Officer!

  • Byron. thank you for a second chance to discuss this.

    No argument regarding your figures; although, I would suppose that current weight of (X-47 say) type craft could be reduced somewhat, if the need for a stronger landing gear is eliminated. Fuel needs might be reduced as well, since the airship would take up some of the flight distance needed for sorties. (?)

    I really would expect that a newer, lighter, perhaps smaller type of drone craft would be developed in tandem with creation of airship carriers.

    140kts is equivalent 160mph. That’s close to take-off speeds for some (not all of course) airplanes; depends on their weight/power etc. Landing speeds are less, obviously.

    A wild design idea (even I will admit this one!) might be a “through hull” sort of flight deck. Just a reach on this, surely we can figure out how to launch/recover drones…

    Size? As above, 600’x360’150’= 300 ton
    800′ x 480′ x 200′ = 700 ton (“Walrus” DARPA airship was supposed to range between 500-1,000 tons payload)

    Not quite the size of a CVN; but that’s not the point. The point is the airship carrier doesn’t have many of the vulnerabilities that a surface bound vessel does (torpedoes,mines…BASM); while offering many advantages. Not to replace the marine vessel…but a great way to add capabilites, at less cost than “more” CVNs..

  • Byron

    Campbell, first, you want to change the size of the UCAV to fit the characteristics of the airship. Cart, meet horse. Second, there is NO way you’re going to put a functioning airship aircraft carrier in the air and still have a low RCS. The airship will be above the radar horizon for thousands of miles in every direction and given the speed and ferocity of modern weapons, 120mph might as well be sitting still. Last, but certainly not least, what kind of damage control would your airship have? How long could it last taking damage? What would the reserve bouyancy be? How quickly could tanks be sealed?

  • Byron,
    But then, we already do make changes in airplanes specificaly to match carrier requirements, neh?
    Radar cross section is a matter of shaping more than size; and, an airship can utilize many times more robust RAM than any airplane, can be shaped in any way wanted without regard to aerodynamics, has enough lift to carry and use active anit-radar measures, etc.
    “above the radar horizon” is more a matter of altitude. Ideally, the airship would be flying just a few meters above the water, unless and until needing to cross overland.
    Mustn’t assume that the airship has no self-defense weaponry/systems.
    160mph, not 120. A tiny point though. we can agree that damage control would certainly be less able than on a current marine vessel. Issues such as reserve bouyancy or sealing of tanks are design factors that involve much more than “comments” allows us here.

    Thanx. no more from me here, gotta catch up with later comments…

  • GIMP

    Matt, regarding the issue of control. In a perfect world I would agree. This is not a perfect world.

    I’ve seen the most ridiculous outputs from software that normally does its job. I’ve flown aircraft with system failure modes that the engineers who designed the systems flat out said were impossible. They kept saying it until after dozens of “impossible” failures forced them to address the problems. These systems are largely mechanical and orders of magnitude simpler than AI.

    If the only thing you need from a drone is for it to autonomously make poor or even unfathomable decisions, fine. Launch them.

    If you need real time ISR, you can pre-program the flight path and sensor looks, but you still need to get the information off them and that’s done in the EM spectrum now. If you need an urgent re-tasking ditto.

    If someone’s willing to allow these things to make independent engagement decisions – good luck with that and I hope they have really good plans to cover up all the screw ups. The only prediction I can make with regards to AI decision making is that it’s going to be good enough so people who love technology will trust it, and bad enough to totally blow it at the worst possible time and get the wrong people killed.

  • Byron

    Campbell, when you’ve figured out the size of lighter than air craft that will carry a minimum 12 UCAVs and ALL supports, then we’ll talk. Right now, all your blimp is good for now is ISAR.

  • Matt H.

    @ GIMP

    I understand what you’re saying totally, the technology is by no means perfect. However, we are reaching the point where human beings are become tertiary processors in a larger system. As examples, AEGIS and the Eurofighter use human beings as merely support processors. Human beings have been drifting further from the kinetic consequence of their weapons. The manual bow was once more accurate than the gunpowder arquebus. 40mm flak was once better than rudimentary rockets for anti-air defense. Now, computerized missiles crush such weapons in the battlefield. How many time have people made mistakes? You certainly have seen many “impossible errors” but how many times have human beings broken “idiot proof” devices or processes. It’s not an issue of preference or CURRENT technology, but the inevitable evolution of our systems in the future.

  • Byron

    @Matt and @ Gimp: there’s a law (I forget the name) that says the more complex a system is, the easier it is to break it, or for the system itself to break down.

    Or, as an old sergeant would say, Keep It Simple, Stupid

  • Matt H.

    @Byron: The most complicated system on the planet is the human being. We are damn easy to break, but we’ve managed to land ourselves on the moon.