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These Aren’t the Drones You’re Looking For

Why the Navy’s betting on the wrong robot airplane for future wars.

U.S. Air Force photo by Frank Carter/Released, Edited by J. Dana Stuster for FP
U.S. Air Force photo by Frank Carter/Released, Edited by J. Dana Stuster for FP

The aircraft carrier is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the U.S. military and a formidable weapon for projecting American might abroad, and yet the Navy is about to make a choice that will make it less relevant for future wars.

In just a few days, the Navy will begin specifying requirements for a new unmanned carrier-launched combat aircraft, called UCLASS — the Navy’s first operational program for an unmanned combat aircraft, or "drone," designed and built to operate from an aircraft carrier. The Navy faces a stark choice: procure a non-stealthy loitering drone like the land-based Predator, or a stealthy penetrating drone like the X-47B unmanned carrier demonstrator. If the aircraft carrier is to stay relevant in future conflicts, it will need a stealthy penetrating drone to fly inside advanced enemy air defenses, where non-stealthy aircraft like today’s Predator are vulnerable. All indications are that the Navy is set to choose a non-stealthy version, which will severely limit the carrier’s usefulness in future conflicts. 

U.S. aircraft carriers can move across the seas today virtually unchallenged by other nations’ militaries, but that is changing fast. Anti-ship ballistic missiles like China’s DF-21D can threaten U.S. aircraft carriers beyond 800 nautical miles. This is a major problem as the unrefueled range of the carrier’s current aircraft is only 500-650 nautical miles, meaning that it would need to expose itself to salvos of ballistic missiles in order to launch its aircraft. This trend will only get worse as anti-ship missiles gain longer range and greater precision, and proliferate in greater numbers.  

Given the value and prestige of aircraft carriers ($11 billion apiece for the next-generation Ford-class), it is doubtful they will be placed in such a position of vulnerability until the threat of anti-ship ballistic missiles has been eliminated through strikes from land-based aircraft or submarines. In practice, this would mean that aircraft carriers would no longer be the central power projection hub of American sea power.

Unmanned aircraft, however, offer a potential solution to this challenge. They can fly farther, up to 1,500 nautical miles, allowing carriers to operate beyond the strike radius of the DF-21D missile and similar systems. Unconstrained by human endurance limits, an unmanned aircraft can refuel and stay aloft much longer than a manned one, enabling persistent reach inside enemy territory. This unmanned aircraft would need to be stealthy, however, in order to survive within enemy airspace.

Given the emerging threat to U.S. aircraft carriers, one would think the Navy would be moving aggressively to introduce stealthy, unmanned systems into its fleet of aircraft. But inexplicably, the Navy is about to sabotage its own future by procuring a non-stealthy UCLASS similar to the hundreds of drones the U.S. military already has.  

Ostensibly, the Navy’s rationale for a non-stealthy UCLASS is about cost. Open source estimates vary, but a stealthy version could cost two to three times more per aircraft, not including development costs. Budgets are tight at the Pentagon, and planners must be cost-conscious. A lower-cost version that is useless in future fights, however, is just a waste of money — and at an estimated $3.7 billion for the entire program, it’s a lot of money to waste. The proposed mission of the non-stealthy UCLASS, maritime surveillance, is already met by three other Navy aircraft: the P-8 Poseidon, MQ-4C Triton, and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.

The Navy’s public statements on UCLASS suggest they plan to opt for a design that has "growth capability" for more stealth later on. But this is an erroneous argument: Aircraft cannot grow stealth at low cost. Fundamental design choices made now to optimize an aircraft for long-loiter times, like the Predator has, will limit how stealthy it can ever be. Switching to a stealthy version later on would require an entirely new aircraft, which begs the question why the Navy doesn’t opt for the stealthy version now. The simple answer is that a stealthy version would compete with manned aircraft for funding, while a non-stealthy aircraft isn’t a competitor — because it won’t be useful against sophisticated threats. In order to force a less-capable UCLASS, cost and development timelines for the program have been arbitrarily limited. Despite proving their value in recent conflicts, unmanned aircraft and their advocates still face strong resistance from some pilots who are threatened by technology that would take humans out of planes.

Manned airplanes were also resisted at first, with the Army infamously court-martialing airpower advocate Billy Mitchell. Before that, the Navy initially resisted the transition from sails to steam-powered ships. Change is hard, especially when it threatens a community’s core identity. But technology is threatening to transform the battlefield once again, and in dangerous ways.

Anti-ship ballistic missiles will proliferate over time to other nations — Iran and North Korea are already working on their own. But aircraft carriers purchased today will have a lifespan of 50 years, meaning they must stay relevant until the 2060s, while the threat from anti-ship missiles will only continue to grow as more countries acquire larger numbers of missiles. A long-range stealthy unmanned aircraft is essential if the carrier is to remain useful in future conflicts. 

Strong leadership by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and congressional leaders must be urgently applied in the coming weeks to ensure the Navy invests in the future of American sea power — with a new generation of aircraft that will keep U.S. carriers the envy of the world and the deterrent of choice. 

Paul Scharre is the author of Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War. A former U.S. Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is currently a senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security. Twitter: @paul_scharre

Shawn Brimley is the director of studies at the Center for a New American Security and served as director for strategic planning on the National Security Council staff and at the Pentagon during the Obama administration.