Don’t look now, but the plan for massive drones on aircraft carriers is coming


Northrop Grumman’s X-47B is one contender to provide new drone aircraft through the Navy’s Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. (Photo courtesy Northrop Grumman)

The Navy landed a 44,000-pound drone aircraft on the USS George H.W. Bush for the first time last summer, a technical feat that was hailed by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at the time as a historic development in a program that would “radically change the way presence and combat power are delivered from aircraft carriers.” And indeed, the bat-winged X-47B remains intriguing: Flown by the click of a computer mouse, it would offer surveillance and reconnaissance of broad swathes of the ocean, and — unlike typical drones — refuel in the air when needed.

Check out video of it in action:

The X-47B is seen by many as a precursor to an even larger fleet of drone aircraft that will be unlike anything the U.S. military has. Known as the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS), it calls for “persistent, aircraft carrier-based intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, targeting, and strike capability to support carrier air wing operations,” according to the Navy. But its future is anything but certain: As USNI News and others have pointed out, there has been a spirited debate about just how much strike capability the UCLASS drones should have.

Arming it to the teeth would make it potent weapon for the Navy when it has to fly aircraft into contested airspace to take out enemy targets. Doing so could potentially reduce casualties in situations where U.S. fighter pilots might otherwise be shot down. But the more bells and whistles it has, the more expensive it becomes — not ideal in an era when the Pentagon is looking to cut costs.

The Navy is set to release a Request for Proposals soon, the head of the program, Rear Adm. Mathias Winter told reporters at the Farnborough International Airshow in London on Monday, Breaking Defense reported. Winter said Joint Staff officials have had divergent views about what the UCLASS should include, increasing curiosity about what will be in the RFP.

The War on the Rocks blog tackled the issue Wednesday.  Shawn Brimley and Bryan McGrath — both military analysts with significant experience in Washington politics –suggested the main concern is that the UCLASS’s requirements will aim “too low” when it comes to lethality. The Navy already has manned and unmanned aircraft that can perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, they argue, including the P-8 Poseidon and E-2D Advance Hawkeye planes and the MQ-4C Triton and MQ-8C Fire Scout drones.

The two analysts argue that the rise of China’s military, among other potential adversaries, means the United States must prepare to fly into contested airspace.

“A good example is China’s DF-21D missile, one that some analysts term a game-changing ‘carrier-killer’ due to its ability to fly beyond the unrefueled range of a U.S. carrier’s strike aircraft,” Brimley and McGrath wrote. “Enabling U.S. aircraft carriers to strike effectively over ranges much larger than the radius of an adversary’s anti-ship missiles is a sine qua non for U.S. maritime power projection.”

Potential contenders for the UCLASS program include Northrop Grumman, which made the X-47B, as well as three other companies with drones with muscular-sounding names. They include…

Lockheed Martin’s Sea Ghost:

Boeing’s Phantom Ray:

… and General Atomics’ Sea Avenger

The crazy electronica music on the latter is not included, of course.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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