Friday, May 22, 2009

Dual-Tasked Carriers

I'm concerned that our huge super carriers are just going to be expensive targets in a network-centric world.

But perhaps carriers can evolve away from the ultimate in platform-centric warfare. This might point the way:

Late last year, the U.S. Navy rolled out its first combat UAV (or UCAS, for Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System). This was part of a six year long, $636 million contract to build and test two X-47B UAVs. The test program calls for first flight this year and first carrier landing next year. The 15 ton X-47B has a wingspan of 62 feet (whose outer 15 foot portions fold up to save space on the carrier). It carries a two ton payload and be able to stay in the air for twelve hours.

UCAS could deploy on smaller carriers than our super carriers. Already, I've written that our amphibious warfare ships could double as light carriers. UCAS make this role bigger than the vertical takeoff F-35 does.

And while I had my doubts about 60,000-ton carriers instead of our super carriers, given the steep drop off in performance for the smaller carrier, UCAS instead of larger manned aircraft could make the smaller carrier just as potent a strike platform as the super carrier with manned aircraft.

I still have grave doubts about the long-term survivability of even medium-sized carriers as the centerpiece of our fleet when a naval network will make it possible to mass missile strikes from widely scattered platforms.

But existing amphibious carriers that can double as light strike carriers and future medium strike carriers that can double as large amphibious carriers could be a little insurance during the gray area of time betweent the supremacy of the platform-centric era super carriers and the network-centric era where widely scattered land-based, surface, submerged, and aerial weapons can be concentrated against any target without exposing a single valuable asset to the enemy.