WASHINGTON – The U.S. Navy lacks the necessary intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to support a force plans to operate more spread out and fight at longer ranges, according to a new report by the conservative Hudson Institute think tank.

The service has relied for years on its F/A-18 Hornets and E/A-18 Growlers, as well as using satellite surveillance data, to find targets to kill. But with ranges extending out beyond the reach of the carrier air wing due to Chinese investments in very long-range anti-ship missiles, the Navy has to develop more organic capabilities, according to the report.

The needs is exacerbated by the reality that satellites will likely be down or degraded by Chinese attacks on the network, meaning that the fleet will be relying on a relatively few number of drones coming into the service to provide targeting, the report said.

“The US currently lacks ISR platforms, manned or unmanned, that can remain on station for long enough, cover enough ground, and feedback enough information to an American fleet to allow US commanders to shape the combat environment,” the report reads

“In the worst case, America’s adversaries may outpace the US in a conflict’s opening phases, forcing Washington to decide between accepting high casualties or ceding an operational region. Less catastrophically, if the US lacks information on China’s movements in the Pacific, this can allow Beijing to manipulate the time and place of potential confrontations, forcing US commanders to choose between unsavory escalation scenarios."

The report was written by Seth Cropsey, director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower, and Bryan McGrath, head of the consultancy The Ferrybridge Group and a former destroyer captain.

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The Navy plans to buy 68 of the land-based MQ-4C Triton, a naval variant of the high altitude, long endurance surveillance drone Global Hawk, which, when fully operational, will be enough to keep five in the air globally at any given time, the study says. But even with a 24-hour endurance and a range of 2,000 miles, five drones to cover the whole world of U.S. Navy operations will not likely be enough to offer complete coverage within the first island chain (the region off China’s coast that encompasses most of the East and South China seas), the report said.

“China’s threat to the US Navy’s sea control abilities within the first island chain is increasing,” The report reads. “Reasonable operational goals for the Navy’s response should include maintaining fire-control quality tracking on all PLAN combatants out of their home ports within the first island chain, and suitable weapons pairings capable of acting upon the tracks maintained.”

The MQ-25 Stingray, which will be the first unmanned aircraft to be integrated into the US Navy's air wing, took its first test flight Sept. 19. (Image: Boeing)
The MQ-25 Stingray, which will be the first unmanned aircraft to be integrated into the US Navy's air wing, took its first test flight Sept. 19. (Image: Boeing)

The study recommends, among other things, increasing the total buy of Triton drones, modifying and repurposing U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper aircraft for maritime uses, reconfiguring the MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueling drone now in development for ISR purposes, and encouraging allies in the region to boost their own ISR capabilities.

Another suggestion in the study is to develop a medium altitude, long endurance drone that can be launched from the flight decks of surface ships, go out over the horizon and act as a targeting relay for the shooter. The Navy has recently invested in longer-range options for killing targets at sea, including a surface mode for the SM-6 missile and the Naval Strike Missile for the littoral combat ship.

“Dispersed surface combatants armed with long-range antiship missiles require organic targeting, especially in comms/satellite denied or degraded environments. Continuing to rely on inorganic targeting ([satellites], land-based UAVs) presents significant operational risk to the surface force, risk that could be mitigated by a UAV capable of sustained operations at range with reconfigurable sensor packages,” the report reads.

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency has done some work on such a drone known as the tactically exploited reconnaissance node, or TERN, which was supposed to provide coverage up to 600 miles. The study also cites a Bell Aviation project V-247 Vigilant as being another option for surface fleet targeting.

The report commends the Navy for investing in longer-range missiles but says that without the targeting, those efforts are for naught.

“Maritime power, like a complex machine, is composed of many parts,” the report concludes. “Among the most important is the ability to out-range an adversary, for which the range of weapons is as critical as the ability to target the adversary effectively. The ability to target a potential adversary’s naval power deserves far more attention than it has received.”