To Save Money, Go Unmanned


U.S. Defense Department leaders have called for a renewed effort to sustain America’s military technological dominance, but to do so they will have to fight an uphill battle against entrenched bureaucratic interests competing over a shrinking budgetary pie. Whether this initiative will be more than simply Pentagon pabulum depends on the future direction of the Navy’s carrier air wing. The Navy has two next-generation programs on the drawing board, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) drone and the F/A-XX 6th generation manned fighter. Squeezing two next-gen aircraft programs into the Navy’s budget will be difficult, particularly if, as the Navy currently plans, the UCLASS drone does not replace any manned aircraft on the deck.

UCLASS, as currently conceived, is an additional bill to pay with marginal benefit. The Navy’s current UCLASS concept, a modestly stealthy maritime surveillance drone, is largely redundant when compared to ground-based P-8 Poseidon and MQ-4 Triton aircraft. This makes little budgetary or strategic sense. In today’s fiscal environment, the Department of Defense (DoD) needs to be focusing on top priorities, including the need for longer-range aircraft to cope with a growing anti-access threat, which the current UCLASS does not address. Resetting the UCLASS program to develop a more capable drone would not only help address this operational need, but could actually save the Navy money. A higher-end UCLASS that is able to take on combat missions could replace some manned aircraft on the carrier. Because of the cost-saving advantages of unmanned aircraft, this swap would free up billions of dollars to be reinvested in other Navy priorities.

An unmanned carrier-based aircraft program could be significantly less expensive than an equivalent manned carrier aircraft program, even if the actual development and production costs of the aircraft are identical. Because of their high degree of automation, unmanned aircraft require significantly fewer flying hours than equivalent manned aircraft for initial qualification training and “currency” training to maintain pilot skills. This translates into reduced operations costs as well as reduced aircraft needed for training and attrition. Savings can be particularly large for carrier-based aircraft, on the order of 40-50% of total procurement and operations costs. Reduced procurement costs alone could save several billions of dollars annually early in the program, translating to additional ships, submarines, munitions, or other aircraft. Recurring savings in operations costs could range in the hundreds of millions annually. Most importantly, unlike many promises of reduced costs that never materialize, these savings are based on real-world experiences with unmanned aircraft today.

A significant amount of flying for manned carrier-based aircraft is dedicated to training and maintaining the currency of pilots to land on an aircraft carrier. Landing an aircraft on a moving carrier, particularly at night and on rough seas, is no mean feat…for a human. Carrier pilots train rigorously and must keep their skills fresh, all of which leads to significant costs in flying hours. None of this training is needed for unmanned aircraft, which land fully automated. Consequently none of these flying hours are needed, saving significant costs. Fewer flying hours, fewer crashes, and fewer aircraft purchased for training all equate to large savings over the life of a program.

Air Force unmanned aircraft programs today show how this is possible. While previous-generation unmanned aircraft like the Predator and Reaper are flown by stick and rudder, flight control for newer unmanned aircraft like the RQ-4 Global Hawk is largely automated, with a pilot directing the aircraft where to go via keyboard and mouse and the aircraft flying itself. As a result, training a person to control the Air Force’s highly automated Global Hawk unmanned aircraft requires 75% fewer flying hours than large manned surveillance aircraft like the E-8 JSTARS. When factoring in “undergraduate” training that pilots receive before aircraft-specific training, cost savings is magnified. Pilots moving through traditional undergraduate training pipelines to manned aircraft receive 100+ hours of flying trainer aircraft before even beginning training on their assigned aircraft. For unmanned aircraft, because there is no “seat of the pants” feel to be gained from being in the aircraft, much of this training is replaced with simulators. Graduates of the Air Force’s “remotely-piloted” (read: unmanned) aircraft undergraduate training pipeline receive less than 40 actual flying hours, or over 60% fewer than manned aircraft pilots. Again, fewer flying hours equates to direct savings in fuel and maintenance costs, but also fewer aircraft needed for training, reducing procurement costs.

Perhaps most radically, a full carrier-based unmanned aircraft program need not require the same number of aircraft to resource the traditional 10 operational carrier air wings (i.e., the aircraft that fly off the carrier). Today, the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers have 10 associated “air wings.” Carriers operate on a rotational cycle that moves the carrier and its air wing through phases of deployment, refit, and training for another deployment. At any given point in time, there are 2-3 carriers deployed, another 3-4 in a heightened state of readiness prepared to deploy relatively quickly, and the remaining carriers in maintenance that are unable to deploy quickly. Traditionally, the air wings also operate on the same cycle. Thus, the Navy normally is required to purchase 10 air wings of aircraft even though several of them will be unable to deploy for months in the event of a conflict because their carriers are not ready to deploy.

For an unmanned aircraft program, however, that need not be the case. The pilots operating the unmanned aircraft will need time at home between deployments, but the aircraft themselves will not. They can be brought in for maintenance and then transferred to the next deploying air wing. Because pilots on the non-deployed air wings do not need to actually fly the aircraft in order to maintain currency, but instead can rely on simulators, a full complement of the carrier’s air wing is not necessary through all phases of a carrier’s maintenance, training, and deployment cycle. Carrier deck crews will need some real physical aircraft to train with to keep their skills fresh, but those aircraft need not be flown – or at least not as much – for the deck crews to maintain their readiness. As carriers move through their rotation cycle preparing for deployment, aircraft will be needed for large-scale exercises and integration training with F-35s, E-2s, and other manned aircraft, but they will not be needed in all phases. Instead, the Navy can purchase only the amount of air wings needed to go to war. Reducing the total procurement buy to, say, 6 air wings instead of 10 could reduce a program’s total costs dramatically. Cycling aircraft through deployment more rapidly would increase wear and tear, but these increased costs would be more than offset by reduced flying hours elsewhere. The total amount of savings in reduced flying hours and fewer aircraft procured for training, depot maintenance, and attrition could be tremendous, on the order of 40-50% of the program’s total procurement and operations costs.

DoD’s fiscal environment is tough, but rather than see UCLASS as another bill to pay, DoD leaders should see it as an opportunity to field significant combat capability at a bargain. It isn’t every day that DoD gets the potential to buy a next-generation weapon system at “half off.” To do so, however, UCLASS will need to be more capable than the aircraft the Navy is currently envisioning, because it will need to replace some manned aircraft on the carrier deck.

As the Navy begins to scope out the shape of the future carrier air wing, it should take a cue from the Army, which has embraced a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft. When faced with the retirement of the Kiowa armed reconnaissance helicopter due to budget cuts, the Army adopted a manned-unmanned teaming model, combining manned Apache helicopters and unmanned Gray Eagle and Shadow aircraft to perform the Kiowa’s mission.

The Navy needs a similar manned-unmanned team model for its future carrier air wing. Unmanned aircraft need not perform every mission a manned aircraft can perform. Manned aircraft will still be needed forward in the fight to “quarterback” unmanned aircraft if long-range communications are degraded. But a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft, leveraging the advantages of each, can reap both operational benefits and tremendous cost savings. Most importantly, a capable UCLASS that replaces some manned aircraft can free up billions for reinvestment in other Navy priority areas. Given budgetary pressures, the question is not whether the Navy can afford to invest in a capable UCLASS, but whether it can afford not to.


Paul Scharre is a fellow and Director of the 20YY Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). From 2008-2013 he worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on unmanned systems and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. He is a former infantryman in the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and has served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Daniel Burg is an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS and an expert on unmanned aircraft lifecycle costs. From 2007 to 2013, he worked for Northrop Grumman Corporation as Manager of Strategic Studies for the Navy Unmanned Combat Aircraft System program. He has over thirty years of experience in aerospace analysis.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery