The Navy’s New Museum Drone and Strategic Malpractice
Aviation history was made last week: an unmanned aircraft — the X-47B — successfully completed an air-to-air refueling demonstration, taking 4,000 pounds of fuel from a KC-707 tanker aircraft. This historic achievement followed last year’s equally revolutionary series of carrier launch and recovery operations by the X-47B.
You would think that the Navy, cognizant of the need to take advantage of the promise of robotics would be aggressively pushing to do further testing, to make unmanned carrier-based surveillance and strike aircraft real, and thus extend the reach and power of the aircraft carrier — the crown jewel of America’s conventional power projection forces. Instead, the Navy wants to decommission the two X-47Bs (named Salty Dog 501 and Salty Dog 502) and put them in museums, even though they have 80% of their approved flight hours left. Such an action flies in the face of the imperative to counter the most strategically troubling elements of the emerging set of anti-access/area-denial threats that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and his team are aiming to offset.
The need to take advantage of unmanned and increasingly autonomous systems to preserve the aircraft carrier’s operational relevance in anticipated threat environments is obvious. America’s potential adversaries are rapidly investing in capabilities designed to limit the ability of U.S. military forces to gain access to, and operate within, vast areas of the air and maritime domains.
For instance, a recent report from the Office of Naval Intelligence, The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century (discussed in this War on the Rocks article) ably details China’s development and fielding of modern missile-armed strike aircraft and surface combatants, quieter submarines armed with advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes, and land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles such as the DF-21D. And Moscow’s recent decision to supply Iran with the S-300 surface-to-air missile system is illustrative of the broader proliferation of increasingly capable integrated air defense systems that threaten to outmatch not only the F/A-18E/F but also the as-yet deployed F-35C.
Cognizant of these emerging threats, as far back as the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, Pentagon leaders directed the Navy to “develop an unmanned longer-range carrier-based aircraft capable of being air-refueled to provide greater standoff capability, to expand payload and launch options, and to increase naval reach and persistence.”
Last week’s demonstration of automated aerial refueling by an unmanned air system (UAS) was a critical component of proving that unmanned naval surveillance and strike operations are possible. While aviation buffs will emphasize its historical significance, astute strategists will zero in on the fact that the UAS in question — the Navy X-47B — is a prototype of a carrier-based, long-range surveillance-strike aircraft with the “broad-band/all-aspect” stealth design required for operating within air space defended by advanced integrated air defense systems. In combination, the X-47B’s successful carrier launch/recovery demonstration in 2013 and last week’s automated aerial refueling effectively prove that the system the Navy needs is technically feasible and within reach.
With aerial refueling, carrier-based UAS will be capable of conducting missions measured not in hours, but in days. For the first time in history, this would allow carrier-based aircraft to operate at intercontinental distances, enabling both rapid global responsiveness and the ability to stage persistent surveillance-strike operations from well outside most threats to the carrier.
While additional technology maturation and experimentation is surely needed before an advanced UAS can be fully integrated into carrier air wings, the Navy is at a strategic “tipping point” where a truly game-changing capability is within their grasp. The submarine-launched ballistic missile — which turned the Air Force’s nuclear “dyad” into the iconic Air Force-Navy triad that deterred the Soviets during the Cold War — is an apt analogue. Absent the submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Navy would have effectively ceded the critical strategic deterrence mission to the Air Force. Today is no different. Absent stealthy, air-refuelable, surveillance-strike UAS aboard its carriers, the Navy will invariably cede power projection — and thus the conventional deterrence mission — to the Air Force, which is developing a new stealth bomber and moving more aggressively on the UAS front.
Inexplicably, however, the Navy plans to end the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) and permanently deactivate the two X-47B aircraft by sending them to museums — doing irreversible damage to them in the process — despite having utilized only a small fraction of their available flight hours. Owing to repeated Navy “de-scoping” of the UCAS-D program over the past several years, much work remains before the Navy is ready to acquire carrier-based UAS at acceptable technical risk. Given the roughly $1.5B invested in UCAS-D to date, and that more technology maturation and experimentation is clearly required, the obvious question is: Why stop now?
The answer from the Navy, and from the naval aviation enterprise in particular, has been that there are no cost effective solutions for continued UCLASS risk mitigation with UCAS-D, and that a penetrating, air-refuelable, surveillance-strike unmanned aircraft would be too expensive. Both arguments are fundamentally flawed.
First, there are, in fact, myriad executable options for continued work on UCAS-D that would not only mitigate technical risk for UCLASS, but also substantially enhance the Navy’s readiness to integrate an operational UAS into the carrier air wing. Key areas for future UCAS-D enabled risk reduction include carrier control-area operations, deck handling, aerial refueling, command and control, sensor and weapon integration, survivability, and fleet experimentation. The simple truth is that UCAS-D has only scratched the surface. While some have argued that continuing UCAS-D would create an un-level competitive playing field for UCLASS, it is hard to understand how requirements for “carrier suitability” set by the government in 2007 after a fair and open competition, and defined in detail in 2011, are now anti-competitive — especially when data collected during the program would be available to all contractors competing on UCLASS.
Under current Navy plans, moreover, the UCLASS program is merely a Technology Demonstration effort slated to begin in roughly FY17, with first flight of the “UCLASS-D” aircraft planned for no earlier than FY20. To state the obvious, it would be much less costly and risky to utilize a flight-proven system during the technology and risk reduction phase of the procurement process rather than develop an entirely new demonstration aircraft. This is true even if continued utilization of the X-47B air vehicles required sustained, low-level investment in hardware and software modifications necessary to address different aspects of yet-to-be-finalized UCLASS requirements. Conversely, the five-year gap in carrier-based UAS flight-testing, demonstration, and experimentation inherent in the Navy’s current approach would likely delay the fielding of an operational aircraft. In other words, the Navy’s current path to carrier-based UAS acquisition is guaranteed not only to cost more and take longer, but also to introduce an unnecessary level of risk in both cost and schedule.
Which brings us to the last argument that proponents of the current flawed approach are making inside the Pentagon: that a penetrating, air-refuelable, counter-anti-access/area denial UAS would be dramatically more expensive than the surveillance-focused “spotter” that the Navy currently prefers. For the latter, the Navy has specified a requirement of 14 hours of unrefueled endurance while carrying a sensor suite and at least 1,000 pounds of weapons internally in low-to-medium threat environments. Meeting that objective would require a large-wingspan aircraft with a roughly 45,000 to 65,000-pound gross takeoff weight. A carrier-based surveillance-strike aircraft with somewhat less unrefueled endurance (8-10 hours — still three to four times that of the F/A-18E/F), a higher cruise speed, significantly increased internal weapons payload (~4,000 pounds), and enhanced survivability (i.e., broadband, all-aspect radar cross section reduction) would likely be in the middle of that gross takeoff weight range. With unit cost correlating closely with gross takeoff weight, both aircraft would likely fall within a similar range for overall cost.
Ironically, affordability in the age of austerity is perhaps the strongest argument for acquiring a stealthy, air-refuelable, surveillance-strike UAS. Whereas the “spotter” UAS — designed expressly to support manned fighters — would represent a purely additive air wing cost, a surveillance-strike UAS could replace the F/A-18E/F in lieu of a manned “F/A-XX” in the late 2020s. The potential cost savings are staggering. Owing to the elimination of pilot training as a driver of carrier-based aircraft force size and flight hours, if the Navy acquired a UAS instead of another manned aircraft to replace the Super Hornet, it could procure roughly half the number of aircraft (or less) and fly them fewer hours per year. Based on in-depth analysis of historical carrier-based aircraft life-cycle cost data, a forthcoming report by the Center for a New American Security projects a 25-year savings mounting into the tens of billions. This is a strategic-level cost offset that would allow the Navy to invest in additional aircraft, ships, and submarines.
At a time when DoD needs to squeeze more capability out of reduced investment budgets to meet acute security challenges, a carrier-based UAS that transforms the carrier into a frontline global attack arm while dramatically reducing the overall cost of the air wing represents a historic opportunity. For the Navy to prematurely destroy the X-47B planes and forfeit the opportunity to reduce risk, experiment, and learn for the next five years constitutes strategic malpractice of the highest order.
At least Congress has taken notice, with Senator John McCain, Congressman Randy Forbes, and others urging the Navy to right its course and ensure America’s aircraft carriers and their air wings can deter and defeat future adversaries. We recommend Congress add funding to the FY2016 budget to keep the UCAS-D air vehicles flying while the Pentagon completes its reevaluation of final requirements for a future carrier-based UAS and it enters into development.
With Congressional leaders acting, it’s time for leaders in the Pentagon to do the same. Last year, the Office of the Secretary of Defense forestalled the Navy’s release of a flawed UCLASS request for proposals and launched a review to study UCLASS requirements in the context of the joint family of airborne surveillance and strike platforms. With the fate of UCAS-D in the balance, it is again time for the Pentagon’s civilian leaders to weigh in to keep the promise of carrier-based UAS operations alive. Secretary Carter, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work, and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus need to act before a historic opportunity is squandered. Pentagon officials like to talk about innovation, experimentation, and halting the erosion of America’s military-technological edge. It’s time for their rhetoric to translate into action.
Robert Martinage is Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Shawn Brimley is Executive Vice President at the Center for a New American Security. Both former Pentagon officials, they testified before the House Armed Services Committee on this issue in June 2014.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy Photograph by Liz Wolter