Carrier-based aircraft design – use or lose it

Supporters of carrier-based unmanned aircraft made a pitch to Congress last week to save funding for the US Navy’s unmanned combat air system demonstrator, UCAS-D. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a think-tank, presented its case that a naval UCAS would transform US aircraft carriers by giving them a long-range, persistent strike and surveillance capability.

The case was based on the tactical benefits of an unmanned aircraft’s greater range and endurance. CSBA analysts did not bring up another argument – that cancelling UCAS-D would end carrier-based aircraft development in the USA.

Hang on, I hear you say, what about the F-35C carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter? It hasn’t even flown yet!
No it has not, but this third and final (planned) version of the JSF has just passed its critical design review, and the hard work of optimising the design for carrier suitability – reducing the approach speed to acceptable limits, strengthening the structure to withstand cats and traps, protecting the avionics from electromagnetic interference – is largely behind the design team.


Those design skills – which in the case of the F-35C built on Grumman’s long experience of naval aviation through Northrop Grumman’s place on Lockheed Martin’s JSF team – can only atrophy if there is no follow-on carrier-based aircraft programme. UCAS-D, whether it is Northrop’s X-47B or Boeing’s X-45N, would keep the skills alive until the Navy needs another aircraft, unmanned or manned.

In presenting their case to Congress, CSBA analysts argued that, without N-UCAS, the tactical reach of a carrier air wing in the 2020s will be essentially the same as it was in the 1980s, when the range disparity between carrier-based aircraft and Soviet Backfire bombers put the US Navy at a “severe disadvantage”.

They pointed out that the unrefuelled strike radius of carrier-based aircraft increased from 250nm in WWII to 350nm in Vietnam and peaked at 600nm in the 1980s, when the Grumman A-6E was still in service. Cancellation of the A-12 and retirement of the A-6E reduced the radius to around 300nm for F/A-18 Hornets and 500nm for a few F-14 “Bombcats”.

The carrier air wing’s reach is on the increase, to 475nm for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and again to 650nm when the F-35C enters service (now not until 2015), but despite this, the analysts argue, by 2020 US Navy “manned aircraft will have the same endurance as the A-1 Skyraider” of the 1950s.

CSBA believes an N-UCAS could have an unrefuelled radius of 1,500nm or more, allowing the carrier to stay clear of land-based missiles and long-range bombers, while providing five to 10 times the persistence of a manned aircraft.

Enough to convince Congress? Or would it help to reinforce previous warnings about the erosion of US military-aircraft design capability: in a 2003 Rand report or the Pentagon’s latest annual report to Congress on the industrial base? If UCAS-D goes ahead, one company could drop out of naval aircraft design. If UCAS-D is cancelled, both could.



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