In early February, analysts from four Washington think tanks held a public event to recommend how the Pentagon could walk the fine line between developing a future military capable of meeting emerging security threats and staying within legislated budget caps.
Although the teams differed on many of their recommendations, all chose to shrink the Navy’s fleet by two or more aircraft carriers. Given the symbolism and cost of aircraft carriers, this generated public speculation that carriers are becoming irrelevant to modern warfare.
In fact, the think tank analysts were heralding the rebirth of the aircraft carrier, not its end. At the same time they cut carriers, each think tank also invested in a new unmanned carrier-based aircraft. Two teams chose a stealthy unmanned combat aircraft system (UCAS) that would be able to perform strike and surveillance missions over long ranges, thus greatly increasing our nation’s ability to use carriers to maintain a military presence or fight aggression in multiple regions.
The teams chose this UCAS over a current Pentagon program to develop an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) aircraft, which is intended to be more of a surveillance asset than a long-range strike platform.
Since the start of World War II, America has relied on its aircraft carriers to project power, control the seas, deter aggression and reassure allies. Today, the Navy has 11 carriers that carry manned fighter jets for precision attack, anti-surface warfare and air defense.
But the future Navy won’t always be able to perform these missions as it does today. Competitors are fielding anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, submarines and other “anti-access” threats that will target carriers.
To avoid these threats, aircraft carriers will have to operate farther from enemy coastlines, thus limiting the ability of carrier-based short-range fighters to reach targets ashore. And when those fighters reach land, they can expect to be met by advanced air defense systems.
Long-range stealth bombers such as the B-2 and submarines like the Ohio-class guided-missile submarine can strike targets despite anti-access threats. But to reload, these platforms rely on fixed land bases that will also be vulnerable to attacks.
To complement our stealth bombers and submarines, the nation needs the mobile air base of the carrier. The carrier, though, needs a new aircraft — a long-range, multimission UCAS that can operate against sophisticated air defenses and perform strike, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
This will require the UCAS to have three key capabilities: sufficient stealth to allow it to operate effectively in contested airspace, long range and a sufficient payload to permit it to attack multiple targets at sea and deep inland.
■ A UCAS that is capable of penetrating contested airspace will need to have what is called “broadband” stealth that reduces its radar cross-section visibility to the kinds of modern air defense systems that are operated by China, North Korea, Iran and Syria. This level of stealth technology is mature and well understood by the Pentagon and defense industry aircraft designers.
■ The UCAS will need an unrefueled range that is double or more than that of manned fighter aircraft. This increased range will permit carriers to launch strikes while beyond the reach of anti-ship ballistic missiles and other land-based threats. In-flight refueling could increase the UCAS’s total mission endurance to 20 hours or even longer, enabling carriers to sustain combat air patrols deep in enemy airspace with fewer aircraft.
■ The UCAS will need an internal weapons payload of 4,000 pounds or more — approximately the same capacity as the Navy’s F-35C — so it can attack the same number of targets as manned fighters when operating in contested areas. The current minimum payload projected for the UCLASS of 1,000 pounds would require a whole carrier detachment of four or more UCLASS to strike the same number of targets as the proposed UCAS.
A long-range, stealthy UCAS operating from the Navy’s carriers would complement the Air Force’s fleet of land-based, long-range bombers and surveillance aircraft to project power globally and rapidly redeploy or “swing” between theaters to deter or fight multiple aggressors.
However, if the Navy instead continues to pursue a UCLASS that lacks broadband stealth, carries a small weapons payload and cannot refuel in flight, it will end up with an aircraft that is dedicated mostly to staying out of harm’s way and providing surveillance information to the fleet.
At best, this UCLASS would be redundant to the fleet’s other nonstealthy unmanned surveillance aircraft, the MQ-4C Triton and MQ-8C Fire Scout. At worst, it would be a lost opportunity to sustain our sea-based strike advantage, as well as a waste of taxpayer dollars at a time when the Pentagon is struggling to adapt to the latest downturn in its budget. ■
Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark are senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington.