As I have been pounding away at for years now, the Super Hornet fleet is not survivable if a war were to break out with China or a bad actor who possess a modern integrated air defense system. Further, as discussed at length here in the past, neither the Super Hornet & Growlers or the Navy’s first stealth fighter, the F-35C, will have anywhere near the range required to strike even the Chinese coastline once that country’s Anti-Access & Area Denial (A2/AD) related weapon systems have matured. In other words, the US Navy has built itself a first rate air arm that is incapable of striking against it’s most deadly potential foe.
Don’t worry, not all is lost! The answer to these and other complicated strategic conundrums may be loitering on the horizon. What the Flightglobal article linked above strangely omits is the US Navy’s ongoing and aggressive push into the burgeoning world of Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs), and in particular the Northrop Grumman X-47B now be tested under the guise of the Navy’s UCAS-D program. The X-47B has been built to basically prove the navalized UCAV concept. Deck handling, catapult launch and arrested recovery, aerial tanking, navigation, you name it, the X-47 has it on the to do list. Further, the X-47 is basically in a pre-production configuration as it is today, complete with large weapons bays, heaps of fuel, and there are configurable sensor kits already in the works. The idea is that if the X-47B can check all the points of the US Navy’s “show you can do it” list, it can go almost seamlessly into production.
So what does all this mean for the Navy’s looming A2/AD (one again meaning Anti-Access/Area Denial) problems vis-a-vis China? The X-47B as it sits today has a bomb bay that can haul upwards of 4,500lbs of bombs or missiles. That is the equivalent of the now retired F-117′s stealthy punch, and can fly some 2000+ miles on a single tank of gas. That second factor is key, as currently the X-47B’s range is double that of the manned platforms it will augment and one day compete with. By possessing a combat radius of over 1000 miles the X-47B will allow US aircraft carriers to operate far away from Chinese shores. This would greatly reduce the enemy’s A2/AD threat profile for carrier groups, although it may not eliminate it fully. At that range most air-breathing threats emanating from the Chinese mainland are nullified, and China’s conventional surface and submarine fleets would be much less dense. Yet China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is said to have a range of around 1900 miles (read more about the DF-21D in this previous Aviationintel pots: Click This Link). Even if this is true the DF-21D’s missiliers still need targeting data from a remote source in order to launch, such as large land based over the horizon radar installations which would be destroyed at all costs in the opening strikes of a conflict, or from maritime forces which if they can see us we can most likely see and kill them, or from long range UAVs. UAVs do pose a major threat to America’s flotillas because in the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) role they can scan large areas of water using radar at high altitude in an attempt to locate US carrier groups. Yet unless these craft were stealthy and have a highly complex low probability of intercept (LPI) radar system with a lot of power, the Carrier Group’s powerful air defense assets such as the E-2D Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning & Control aircraft or AEGIS equipped cruisers and destroyers should be able to detect them hundreds of miles away. Once detected these surface and airborne targeting threats could be dealt with by shorter ranged manned naval air power while the very much unmanned and long-legged X-47B prosecutes deep strike missions far from it’s carrier mothership.
What the X-47B or a similar UCAV buys a US Navy Carrier Group is a much larger effective operating envelope, which in turn means much better survivability in relation to China’s A2/AD efforts. Further, long range UCAVs will allow the carrier to bring strike capability to bear without needing to rely on highly visible, expensive and vulnerable USAF aerial tankers. In addition, the X-47B offers a perfect deep strike weapon for the opening days of a conflict which will almost certainly be aimed at deflating China’s A2/AD capabilities and it’s integrated air defense system. Further, the X-47B will most likely be greatly improved if tests are successful. Enhancements in range and payload will almost certainly come to pass, offering the US Navy even a greater margin for which to operate during a time of war against an A2/AD threat. Even today Northrop Grumman has shown how the X-47B could buddy tank from another X-47B carrying external tanks and possibly internal fuel bladders in it’s cavernous bomb bays. Although external tanks would increase the tanker configured aircraft’s detectability, it would be able to stay well outside of “the danger zone” some 500+ miles from the enemy’s coastline, while it’s cleanly configured bomb laden brethren push on deep into the enemy’s integrated air defense system after refilling their tanks enroute. Such a scheme could push US Carrier Groups almost to the very edge of China’s “worst case” perceived A2/AD capability and as targets relating to that capability are taken out by X-47B like aircraft and other joint forces the Carrier Group can begin to move closer, thus putting it’s manned airpower into use as both the threat and operating distance diminishes.
One could actually make the case that an operational variant of the X-47B, paired with the Super Hornet would be an effective and capable mix for our carrier groups without even a need for the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter. The cost-effective Super Hornets could provide close air support for ground troops who will only operate under permissive airspace anyway, sea control and surface attack duties, as well as providing for defensive counter air operations for the Carrier Battle Group. Meanwhile the X-47Bs could provide deep strike and persistent surveillance in denied airspace. Even on the air to air side of the equation the X-47B could provide an unbelievable capability alone, with it’s ability to loiter for hours without being detected, and large payload. Since it would be one of the few platforms able to operate over a capable enemy’s airspace, the unmanned combat vehicle could literally classify and engage aerial targets at will. Once air superiority has been achieved the X-47B could operate as a tanker, sensor platform, or arsenal ship for manned platforms supporting troops on the ground. In fact the whole idea of unmanned arsenal ships and surrogates really brings the UCAV’s extremely unique level of utility clearly into view, and a possible saving grace for the F-35C in this instance.
Most people see Unmanned Air Vehicles or Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles as stand-alone loaners, robots that operate totally separate from the “sentient” forces. This is especially true for more autonomous “point and click” drones such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk and X-47B, where there is no human “flying” the aircraft in a virtual cockpit. As these weapon systems change from primarily sensor platforms to attack and even air defense machines, the wedge between manned systems and unmanned systems will all but vanish. What an aircraft like the X-47B will eventually be able to do is not just operate as a standalone weapon system but also as an enabler for manned platforms. In the beginning we will probably see this in the form of “tethering,” where a single aircraft or formation of aircraft fly’s with a UCAV or UCAVs in it’s formation or combat area. These UCAVs will work as both a sensor platform and as an arsenal ship. For strike this would mean an F-35C may be accompanied into the target area with a flight of X-47Bs or other advanced UCAVs, with the F-35C pilot directing the robots where to place their weapons. In some cases the UCAVs could even be directed by the pilot to take out a target’s surrounding air defenses if they are active before he or she proceed into the target area for precision bombing of their intended target.
The concept of tethering is even more intriguing when it comes to the air to air combat environment. A single F-35C, limited by it’s small missile load and very finite on-station time, could fly with a pair of UCAVs. The pilot could direct the UCAVs into strategic positions in the combat area to scan and listen for enemy aircraft, all the while data-linking their information back to the manned asset and thus providing the pilot with a higher fidelity sensor picture than his aircraft could produce alone. As threats pop up the pilot could direct combat drones under their control to fire their missiles instead of firing his or her own at enemy aircraft, or they can elect to fire missiles from both drones under their control as well as from their aircraft at an enemy formation. This would totally destroy the enemy’s ability to employ missile defeating tactics as they would be dealing with multiple shooters from different vectors, all of which they are almost totally incapable of detecting. The same can be said for pop-up ground based threats. A pilot or flight tasked with counter air operations could tell one of their assigned drones to go over and drop a small diameter bomb on an active radar site while the piloted force continues to engage marauding enemy aircraft. Once the pilot’s aircraft runs out of missiles they can continue to stay in the fight by “quarterbacking” the drones and employing their arsenals on targets as they see fit. Further, by refueling from a tanker hundreds of miles away a pair of F-35C’s commanding a quartet of drones could keep a massive amount of survivable and deadly firepower over enemy airspace at all times, each bowing out to get gas as needed without causing an air superiority vacuum. A pilot could even continue “fighting” in a battle once they have left to go get more gas as they can use the common sensor picture, provided by the drones still on station, to assign targets and move his aircraft around at will. In other words, flying with these robotic wingmen will allow a fighter pilot to continue to manage a persistent game of aerial chess even though they may be temporarily hundreds of miles away from the battle.
A similar concept could work possibly to even a more deadly effect by “untethering” the UCAVs and allowing any aircraft in the battle space to “request” weapons on a target or one of the drone’s sensor information on a first come first serve or prioritized basis. Under such a concept X-47s or similar UCAVs would be stationed over the battle space armed with air to air and/or air to ground weapons. As F-35Cs operating in the area notice an enemy air defense radar or node turn on, or a group of enemy fighters pop up, they can request a X-47s orbiting closer to that target to attack it while they carry on with their intended objective. After which the UCAV could return automatically to it’s station and continue orbiting and adding to the common data-linked “picture” of the battle space while awaiting it’s next request. Such a concept would create a “market place” of offensive and defense products for combat pilots flying in a particular area to order up on demand, and would allow them to continue to fight a battle long after their own weapons caches run dry. No more need to immedietly return to base once a pilot’s weapons have run dry. This means less sorties with less long transits into and out of a combat area. In other words, it lets a military commander do much more with a limited amount of costly manned air combat platforms than what was ever thought was possible..
As you can see, whether we like it or not, for some of the most dangerous and critical missions, as well as some of the most mundane, UCAVs represent an exciting future where they may replace manned platforms in some cases and augment them to a great degree in others. Nowhere in the world of combat aviation do UCAVs make more sense than on an aircraft carrier. Seeing as US Navy Super Carriers are literally a sub five acre airport containing a floating air force, where space is at a minimum and fielding long-range bombers with massive wingspans is simply not an option, the fact that the UCAV can take the space and weight once filled by a cockpit and life support equipment in a modern fighter and turn it into gas and bombs makes great sense. This is especially true in an age where we may no longer be able to park our massive carriers just off an enemy’s shore and pummel our enemies almost at will as we once have. Further, seeing as the aircraft carrier flight deck and associated operations are already highly choreographed and meticulously ran, fitting in unmanned systems on a “point and click” command interface level is more feasible and relevant there than at some bustling airport somewhere, although it does represent it’s unique challenges which the X-47B and the UCAS-D program aim at solving.
The main point here is that UCAVs, most likely in the form of an operational version of the X-47B, are the answer to the US Navy’s Anti Access/Area Denial riddle that has been put forth by an ever more powerful China. The sooner we can get a system like it on our flattops and in an operation format the better. Once we have gotten to that point we can start to truly explore the amazing possibilities posed by this game changing capability. Once we have come realize just how effective these machines can be we may begin to look at expeditionary warfare in a totally different light. Eventually we may even see aircraft carriers act more like command and control mother-ships than traditional floating airbases of the past. Places where throngs of robotic aircraft launch and recover with computer like efficiency, and fallible humans are not allowed in cockpits so that they cannot introduce error into the deadly swarm’s meticulous equation…