Monday, October 07, 2013

The Future of Naval Aviation

Right now, the short radius of our combat aircraft means our carriers must sail within range of many threats before being able to strike enemy targets. The Navy is banking on unmanned combat aircraft to extend aviation range enough to put our carriers out of range of most threats.

Strategypage covers the X-47 trials that put us ahead of rivals for unmanned combat aircraft:

[The] U.S. has leaped ahead in developing UCAVs. This became very obvious in late 2012 when a U.S. Navy X-47B UCAV made its first catapult launch. This came 22 months after the first flight of the X-47B. ...

The navy rolled out the first X-47B, its first UCAV, in 2008. This compact aircraft has a wingspan of 20 meters (62 feet) and the outer 25 percent folds up to save space on the carrier. It carries a two ton payload and will be able to stay in the air for twelve hours. The U.S. is far ahead of other nations in UCAV development[.] ... It’s generally recognized that robotic combat aircraft are the future, even though many of the aviation commanders (all of them pilots) wish it were otherwise. ...

The U.S. Navy was energized by realization that they need UCAVS on their carriers as soon as possible in order for these ships to survive modern anti-ship weapons. The current plan is to get these aircraft into service by 2018. But many carrier admirals want unmanned carrier aircraft in service sooner than that. All this activity was triggered by the realization that American carriers had to get within 800 kilometers of their target before launching bomber aircraft. Potential enemies increasingly have aircraft and missiles with range greater than 800 kilometers. The navy already has a solution in development, since the X-47B UCAS has a range of 2,500 kilometers and all they have to do is get these UCAVs operational.

So anxious are the admirals to get UCAVs that for the last two years navy leadership has been seeking ways to reduce orders for the new F-35B and F-35C manned aircraft and use that money to buy the X-47Bs and similar robotic combat aircraft instead.

These are way different than the UAVs we've been using for counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism work. For conventional warfare, our existing big, slow UAVs will be vulnerable to conventional air defenses and aircraft. UCAVs will initially be bombers and air defense suppression aircraft, but eventually they will replace manned fighters, too.

The relatively small UCAVs mean that more could be put on our big carriers.

But the UCAV size--combined with precision weapons that reduces the need for sortie generation--also means that a useful air wing could be put on a smaller carrier. In theory we could have more decks with the same size wings as our current big deck carriers and manned aircraft. Indeed, we have smaller carriers although we call them amphibious warfare ships.

Still, even with UCAVs with longer range (and capable of firing even longer ranged missiles, extending the carrier safe zone even more), our enemies will build longer range anti-ship weapons for their aircraft, subs, and surface ships. Any sigh of relief we have when UCAVs go to sea will be short-lived.

So what should our future naval aviation look like? Should we stick with big carriers that are few in number when we can't prevent them from being shot at?

Should we switch to smaller deck carriers? But how small can we build carriers? At some point, I think there are costs that we can't avoid by shrinking the carrier. And the capabilities might be far smaller than the savings in price.

If we build large carriers, could these ships be hybrids with vertical launch cells for long-range anti-ship or land-attack cruise missiles? Like the Soviet-designed Kuznetsov class? With UCAVs, the air wing would be no smaller than today's manned aircraft air wings, I'd guess.

And we could even store cruise missiles-in-a-box below decks to be placed on deck for firing. Although we'd need longer ranged missiles than the Russian SS-N-25 used in that system.

We need sea-based aviation. Of that I have little doubt. But I don't know what we can deploy that is effective and survivable in the face of increasingly effective precision long-range missiles and detection capabilities.