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US think-tank calls for stealthy, carrier-based UCAV

An influential think-tank has unveiled a vision of a future US Navy strike group composed of two aircraft carriers and supporting ships with 110 aircraft, including new requirements for a stealthy attack unmanned air system (UAS) and a manned fighter optimised for the air-to-air mission.

The report released on 28 February by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments received the endorsement of Senator John McCain, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, as the Trump administration and Republican leaders in Congress plot the shape of a new military build-up.

CSBA’s analysts, including Bryan Clark and Peter Haynes, argue in the new report that the composition of the navy’s carrier strike groups today will be inadequate by 2030 for anything besides deterrence functions and offensive operations against sophisticated enemies lasting beyond a few days.

As a result, the report, entitled, “Restoring American Seapower”, advocates for creating a new “manoeuvre force” that combines weaponry and surveillance systems of two carrier battle groups into a single force with 110 total aircraft instead of 60-70 in today’s battle groups with only one aircraft carrier. Such a combined force could wage a sustained aerial campaign against a modern opponent, while possessing enough defensive power to survive as the capabilities of long-range anti-ship missiles make progress.

The new manoeuvre force would need still more capabilities beyond those offered by today’s carrier-based aircraft. The authors envision a scenario of a surprise attack on deterrent force, composed of a single aircraft carrier armed with Lockheed Martin F-35Cs, that must withdraw after one or two days of combat, while the maneuver force is still en route to provide relief.

To keep pressure on the opponent while the deterrent force withdraws, the CSBA report envisions a stealthy UAV shaped like a Northrop Grumman B-2-style flying wing to penetrate into defended airspace up to 2,000nm from the manoeuvre force’s position. The stealth unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) would be optimised for strike, leaving no room for other mission, such as refueling and surveillance. There would still be a need for a multi-mission, utility UAV to perform aerial refueling for F-35Cs on defensive patrols up to 1,000nm away from the manoeuvre or deterrent carrier forces.

Finally, the manoeuvre force will need a new aircraft optimised for offensive counter-air missions. Recalling the USN’s evolving requirements for a Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet replacement, CSBA’S report calls for an aircraft capable of fending off bombers and fighters armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles.

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