This article first appeared as a Comment in the 26 August issue of Flight International
So far, unmanned aviation has changed warfare mainly by providing tactical units with a level of reconnaissance and targeting support unimaginable even 15 years ago – and that is only the start.
The two-year deployment of the Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max helicopter to Afghanistan showed that unmanned aircraft also can be used to deliver cargo. As research programmes like the US Navy’s autonomous aerial cargo/utility system mature, unmanned aircraft are likely to become viable alternatives to manned aircraft for routine resupply missions on the battlefield.
Unmanned systems and autonomous decision aids are proliferating everywhere – so why is the US Navy having such a problem with the concept of using fixed-wing, unmanned aircraft as carrier-based, long-range strike and surveillance systems?
This is a perplexing question to be asking in 2014. While the use of unmanned air systems has spread over the past decade, the carrier deck has remained a quaint sanctuary for manned aviation. This is despite the fact that contractors such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems were all too willing to adapt mediumrange surveillance aircraft for the carrier deck.
Instead, the service spent more than $1.5 billion from 2006 to build two bespoke, tailless aircraft – Northrop Grumman X-47Bs – for a two-year demonstration to prove that a carrier’s deck can accommodate manned and unmanned aircraft at the same time.
Now that the demonstration is largely over, the navy still seems unsure of how to proceed. While the bidding should soon begin for the follow-on unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike programme, this faces heavy scepticism from Congress – and even reportedly from within the navy.
The US Air Force has already proven the utility of land-based, fixed-wing and even tailless unmanned aircraft in the long-range, penetrating surveillance mission. Northrop’s RQ-4 Global Hawk is the most notable example, but the service has also deployed Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel, and acknowledged the existence of another classified, high-altitude penetrating system.
If such aircraft are useful for the air force, there can be no doubt about the need for them to also serve on a carrier deck. In an age of long-range precision weaponry, such vessels are more vulnerable than ever.
As a result, the navy should realise that having an aircraft in the same class at least as the RQ-170 on deck seems like the proverbial “no-brainer”.