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Getting Unmanned Naval Aviation Right

Bryan McGrath & Shawn Brimley

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.

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