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.