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Getting Unmanned Naval Aviation Right

July 16, 2014

The issue of when and how the U.S. Armed Forces fully integrate unmanned and increasingly autonomous surveillance and strike platforms into their inventory is one of the most important issues facing the Department of Defense. The Navy’s unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) program offers a test case to judge how serious the services are about ensuring carrier-based long-range strike missions in a contested environment. We are concerned that the Navy’s path to UCLASS aims too low, missing an opportunity to secure the future relevance of the carrier force, America’s primary forward-deployed, power-projection capability.

There are essentially two competing options for the unmanned system: a semi-stealthy aircraft with sufficient endurance to provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and light strike in largely permissive environments; or a more capable aircraft with air-to-air refueling capability designed to operate in contested airspace for surveillance and strike missions.

Open source reporting indicates that the request for proposals is biased toward the first option: an unmanned ISR aircraft capability. This is a questionable decision given the ability of other Navy platforms to perform this mission, including the P-8 Poseidon, the MQ-4C Triton, the MQ-8C Fire Scout, and the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye. This flies in the face of authoritative guidance, including the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance, which directed the DoD to “invest as required to ensure its ability to operate in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) environments.” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus also weighed in, writing at War on the Rocks in January of 2014 that “the end state (for UCLASS) is an autonomous aircraft capable of precision strike in a contested environment … It will be a warfighting machine.”

Why does the United States need such a platform? The answer to that question lies in the developing threat environment. The U.S. military enjoys a critical competitive advantage: the ability to project power thousands of miles from American shores. For much of the post-Cold War era, this capability has gone relatively unchallenged. Those days are ending as many nations have realized that the best way to counter the United States is to deny it the time and space to marshal forces and project power. China has effectively woven this approach into its military strategies, fielding a number of capabilities designed to keep U.S. naval and aerospace forces from projecting power by denying them operational sanctuary. All elements of China’s A2/AD network are cause for concern, but it is its long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles that most complicate naval airborne power projection.

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. 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. If the United States cannot do this, the nation’s aircraft carriers, and the hundreds of billions they have cost to procure and operate, will likely become irrelevant, perhaps sooner rather than later. Even worse, U.S. maritime dominance — the fundamental guarantor of freedom of the sea commons for the past 70 years — will effectively come to an end. That is a completely unacceptable outcome given the centrality of maritime power projection to U.S. national security.

Given the pace of technological diffusion and the rapidity of China’s military modernization, passing on the opportunity to field a system that can enhance the striking power of U.S. aircraft carriers seems particularly unwise — especially when all of the Navy’s carrier-based unmanned aircraft developmental efforts to date have been aimed at reducing technical risk on just this class of system.

The House Armed Services Committee recently acted to withhold funding for UCLASS until Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel certifies the final requirements. We urge the Senate to join the House in this provision and we urge Sec. Hagel to set a high bar for UCLASS. The stakes are high. If the United States fields a carrier-based unmanned combat air system within the next decade, it will go a long way toward ensuring that tomorrow’s adversaries fear the U.S. aircraft carrier and the long-range combat-strike power it can unleash. It will set the Department of Defense on the right path toward securing America’s military-technical dominance for the next generation.

Shawn Brimley is Executive Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Mr. Brimley served in the Pentagon and White House during the Obama Administration’s first term.

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC and the Assistant Director of the Center for American Seapower at the Hudson Institute.  He was the Navy Policy Team Lead for the Romney 2012 Campaign. 


Image: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman by Alan Radecki/Released

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5 thoughts on “Getting Unmanned Naval Aviation Right

  1. The resource sponsor for UCLASS is the DCNO for Information Dominance, OPNAV N2/N6. N2/N6 is responsible for providing information, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities; it funds a small portfolio of aviation programs to that end (to include unmanned platforms). In other words, N2/N6 wants to spend its limited money on ISR capabilities. It’s not necessarily interested in spending money on kinetic capabilities, that’s not N2/N6’s job.

    Delivering weapons from naval aviation platforms is the responsibility of the Director, Air Warfare, OPNAV N98. N98 is the resource sponsor for many capabilities, including aircraft carriers, tactical aviation, and maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters. N98 is less concerned with ISR and more concerned with, well, blowing things up.

    N98 knows how to write requirements for weapon-capable aircraft that can integrate with a carrier air wing. If it is decided that UCLASS is to have a strike role, then N98 is the better resource sponsor.

    If you want to weaponize UCLASS and “get it right”, move it to N98.

    1. Great example of infrastructure alignment based on yesterday’s war fighting model. Unmanned ISR and munitions have merged in many ways and the separate offices are ill equipped to blend their traditional policy lanes. Time to update roles & responsibilities.

    2. The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (DCNO) for Warfare Systems (N9) is responsible for the integration of manpower, training, sustainment, modernization, and procurement of the Navy’s warfare systems. The N-9 provides leadership, guidance and direction to the directors of Expeditionary Warfare (N95), Surface Warfare (N96), Undersea Warfare (N97), and Air Warfare (N98). In effect the N-9 is responsible for overseeing requirements and resource allocation to strike the necessary balance across these warfare areas. The DCNO for Information Dominance, OPNAV N2/N6, is responsible for the integration of manpower, training, sustainment, modernization, and procurement of the Navy’s information, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities.
      It stands to reason that Navy’s information and cyber capabilities external to the deployed force need strong requirements and resource sponsorship separate from the N-9 warfare systems. However, by what convoluted logic were some but not all electronic warfare systems allocated to the N-2/N-6? Surely surface, subsurface and air warfighters appreciate the value of electronic warfare systems in the overall mix of warfighting capabilities. N-2/N-6 requirements and resource sponsorship of UCLASS surveillance and strike system is equally mystifying from a logical perspective. If surveillance systems fall under the N-2/N-6, why not TRITON and E2D?
      All organizations have their strengths and weaknesses. In this case it appears that it would make more sense to move the warfighting systems (such as SEWIP and UCLASS), under the N-9 where they would compete for resources based on their contribution to combat mission effectiveness in the context of all other expeditionary, air, surface, and undersea warfighting capabilities. Moreover, the N-9 would be responsible for their integration with the other warfighting structures.

  2. I thought we already had an naval unmanned strike asset for heavily defended airspace, called Tomahawk.

    The Navy needs to figure out what it wants to buy LONG before it puts out a Request For Proposals. It takes longer to come up with an answer to a complicated problem then it does to state the problem. The Govt doesn’t realize that.

  3. If we can develop an unmanned strike aircraft that has a greater range than the DF-21, wouldn’t this make aircraft carriers unnecessary? Why put a carrier battle group into harm’s way if you’ve got a drone that can reach distant targets from a land base?