Magazine article National Defense

Unmanned Bombers at Sea?

Magazine article National Defense

Unmanned Bombers at Sea?

Article excerpt

Navy still years away from deploying attack drones aboard aircraft carriers

Given the Navy's checkered history of flying drones aboard ships, it's not surprising that its first pursuit of an unmanned aircraft geared for carrier operations has progressed cautiously and even with a hint of trepidation. While the sea service remains tight-lipped about how such an autonomous system might be employed in the future, analysts say it has the potential to alter naval warfare and are calling for an accelerated demonstration of its capabilities.

"The sooner you can demonstrate this and convince die carrier aviation community that 'hey, this will work,' then we think the attractiveness of the system will be just too irresistible," says Robert Work, naval analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

About the size of a fighter jet, the unmanned combat air system, or UCAS, is envisioned as a stealthy, long-range fixed-wing aircraft similar in design to a B-2 bomber. Navy officials have hinted that the UCAS might serve as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system that could support manned aircraft aboard a carrier in the 2020s.

"But we believe it could be so much more," Work says during a CSBA briefing on Capitol Hill.

The Navy sees rhe UCAS in the vein of the EA- 18G Growler and the E-2B Hawkeye - as a specialized support plane flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, says Work. Once naval aviators are convinced that UCAS can operate safely on a carrier, he believes the Navy will want to add long-range strike capabilities to its surveillance function.

For example, UCAS could be loaded with advanced medium range air-to-air missiles and fly in a persistent orbit to hit targets. It could suppress enemy defenses, hunt down moving targets, and conduct close air support and interdiction operations.

"This is more flexible rhan an ISR system," says Work, who adds that he's not suggesting the UCAS will replace manned aircraft, but rather complement them.

The Navy last month awarded Northrop Grumman a $635-8 million contract to study concepts for carrier-based unmanned aerial systems operations during the next six years. The Los Angeles-based company plans to demonstrate diat its X-47B, a tailless autonomous air vehicle, can operate safely aboard a carrier in catapult launches and landings, and fly in operations in the ship's airspace.

"The purpose of the UCAS contra« is to demonstrate critical carrier suitability technologies of an air vehicle in a relevant environment," says Lt. Cmdr. John Schofield, spokesman for the Navy.

Northrop, which has built other carrier-based aircraft such as the EA-6B Prowler and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, announced that it aims to conduct the first at-sea carrier landing demonstrations in late 201 1. The company by 2013 will deliver studies, analyses, reports and flight test data, which will be used to verify diat the technology is mature enough to enter into an acquisition program, says Schofield.

"We think the naval unmanned combat system offers huge opportunities to the Navy," says Thomas Ehrhard, senior fellow at CSBA UCAS has the ability to be as transformational in the air as the Navy submarine conversions have been at sea, he says.

Trident To explore elements of UCAS operations beyond the basic take-off, flying and landing capabilities, the Navy in a separately funded prois exploring concepts including autonomous aerial refueling and gram multi-ship combat operations.

"From our perspective, this is the time to make that a very robust program," Work says. That will require more funding for UCAS, has not fared well in the Defense Department's budget.

which The Bush administration has requested $1.8 billion in the next five for both the UCAS demo program and the Navy's years technology advancement efforts. Ofthat total, $300 million is intended for studying operational UCAS capabilities. …

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