A few weeks ago in the California desert the Navy took the wraps off a weapon that could revolutionize war at sea. It’s the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS), a stealthy, unmanned plane as big as a modern carrier fighter, yet able to fly much further and stay aloft without refueling for many hours. Flight tests on the prototype begin soon and culminate with carrier landing trials at sea in late 2011.
If UCAS works, the Navy will have a mature prototype for many missions from reconnaissance to stealthy strike. Too bad its chances of living that long are low.
For all its potential, UCAS is not a favorite child of the sea service. The demonstrator program was dropped like a foundling on the Navy’s doorstep in 2004. The Navy became the foster care of choice only after much resistance and after the Office of the Secretary of Defense moved money away from a joint program with the Air Force and gave it to the Navy. In short, it’s far from certain that the admirals will accept UCAS as one of the family.
That’s unfortunate, because UCAS holds the key to solving a big problem for future Navy aviation: range. Range is a limiting factor for carrier aviation. Over land-locked Afghanistan, for example, the Navy struggled to get inland to the fight then back to the aircraft carrier. The Western Pacific is filling up with longer-range enemy missiles which can target surface ships and aircraft. Range is highly desirable, but the Navy has not built a new long-range attack plane since the A-6 which was in service from 1963 to 1997. Today’s Navy aircraft carriers are optimized for close-in, littoral work.
All that could change if the Navy continues work on UCAS. UCAS offers exceptional range and endurance. Dispatched ahead of a carrier, it can orbit for 24 hours or more before it comes back to land on the deck. It’s very stealthy and can be armed with precision munitions, probes, remote sensors or anything that needs to get into the battlespace on the sly.
Navy aviators have doubts about UCAS in part because they don’t fly the big unmanned systems like Predator and Reaper in combat. Operating modified Global Hawks for broad area maritime surveillance should make believers out of some of them. Others will continue to worry about breaks in satellite communications, for example. In low intensity conflict, that’s much less likely, and in high-intensity operations, it’s a risk for all. The UCAS itself can always default to an autonomous mode following GPS direction or link back into the network via airborne communications relays with the carrier-based E-2D radar plane.
No one is saying the Navy UCAS is ready to take over every activity, right now. Big hurdles like automated carrier landing and autonomous air refueling lie ahead. The Navy may ultimately want a more aggressive platform. But the threats won’t wait. Long range used to be one of the glories of carrier aviation, and UCAS deserves a chance to prove itself worthy of fighting from the carrier.
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