What is the potential and what are the challenges the Navy faces in fielding a UCLASS to the fleet?
It is a pleasure to contribute to the 5th Anniversary celebration of Raymond Pritchett’s Information Dissemination. As an advocate for seapower, I have long regarded this blog as one of the most important hubs for naval discussions.
While a carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle is known by many names (J-UCAS, X-47B, UCAS-D, and UCAV, among others), the current program scheduled for initial operating capability in 2020 is known as UCLASS, or the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike platform. To understand the potential of UCLASS, as well as the challenges this program faces, we must first take a step back and look at the role the nuclear powered aircraft carrier (CVN) and its associated Carrier Air Wing (CVW) will play in tomorrow's naval strike missions.
For seven decades the carrier has served as the modern-day “capital ship” of the U.S. Navy, routinely adjusting to the prevailing security environment to offer Washington's decision-makers a range of diplomatic and strategic options. Now, as new challenges to America's power projection capabilities have developed, including anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities like the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM), another round of carrier innovation is necessary to ensure American presidents retain a viable power projection option in the CVN when a crisis arises.
The carrier’s enduring utility to strategists can be attributed to its mobility, operational flexibility, and modularity. First, a CVN provides U.S. policymakers with unlimited mobility. In an unpredictable and competitive global environment, America’s 11-carrier fleet gives it the capacity to deploy two or three CVNs to the Pacific and Indian Oceans at the same time. This provides the commander-in-chief a constant symbol of strength to project America’s intentions to both friends and competitor states during, for example, missile tests on the Korean Peninsula, tensions in the Straits of Hormuz or South China Sea, or elections in Taiwan.
|Boeing X-45 C|
The CVN’s operational flexibility can help balance America’s critical need for overseas bases with the diplomatic and geopolitical challenges often associated with maintaining overseas basing rights. Indeed, the Pentagon’s new Joint Operational Access Concept identifies the pressures on America’s overseas defense posture as one of the three trends affecting its ability to gain access to areas contested by competitors’ anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. As well, the proliferation of medium-range ballistic missiles and land attack cruise missiles is increasingly allowing competitors to hold America's overseas airfields at risk. A CVN's ability to freely operate in international waters allows it to surge to a regional crisis when called on and then withdraw quietly when tensions subside.
Finally, the modularity of the carrier platform ensures its continued adaptability to emerging threat environments. Traditionally, a CVN has operated as a regional strike platform that can project power with short-range tactical aircraft. For instance, tactical strike-fighters were used during the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and continued to provide close air support as these conflicts continued. Currently, the CVW has four squadrons of roughly 10-12 F/A-18 fighters, of which the current E/F variants cost $80M apiece. In the years ahead, the new F-35C will be entering the fleet to provide a low signature complement to the F/A-18. At roughly $130M per copy, the Navy plans to purchase 340 of these airframes and eventually equip two out of four squadrons of each CVW with them. While the internal (stealth) payload of the F-35 is more limited than the F/A-18, its sensor package and stealth capability are a quantum leap beyond the F/A-18. However, because of its sophisticated power plant, C4ISR systems, and low-observable characteristics, the operations and maintenance costs of the F-35C will be about $35,000 per flight hour, or twice the O&M costs of the F/A-18.
|Northrop Grumman X-47B UCAS|
Second, stealth alone is not enough to defeat the A2/AD threats of the future. New detection methods and technologies including long-wave IR and low-frequency radar are slowly eroding the benefits of investing in expensive stealth capabilities. Bistatic and multistatic radar detection, empowered by dramatically improved computer processing, will also make stealth platforms easier to find. Therefore, while signature reduction efforts will remain important, we will also need to improve our ability to reach the enemy from farther away with unmanned sensors and stand-off weapons. These new payloads should include an improved Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) with a range of roughly 300 nautical miles (nm), the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM-A), and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER).
The UCLASS faces at least two challenges. Partially as a result of the the $487 billion in defense cuts levied on the Department of Defense by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the first challenge is that the program's IOC has already slipped from 2018 to 2020. Estimates hold that it would cost roughly $300M to accelerate the program to 2019 and $600M to field it in 2018. Congress must also be aware that further cuts may force this date to slip further.
A second challenge the Navy faces concerns what type of UCLASS it should build and the tradeoff between stealth and range. Some have argued that UCLASS must have a very low radar signature, with the expectation it will need to conduct sustained operations inside a high-threat environment. However, because carrier-based aircraft are limited by their size and weight, an unmanned airframe that has both endurance and stealth would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Alternatively, an unmanned aerial vehicle with conventional wings and modest stealth could provide greater endurance at a more reasonable price.
|General Atomics Predator C|
In short, a CVW with a detachment of UCLASS equipped with stand-off weapons would give the CVN of the future the capacity and reach to hold targets at risk while operating outside the ASBM envelope. This would help to reduce the operational advantage the ASBM offers while increasing the strategic and operational flexibility of American decision-makers.
Considering the changes to the security environment on the horizon, the promise of the UCLASS program (teamed with stand-off weapons) for the Navy should be considered on par with the early 20th century leap from 20nm battleship gun battles to carrier air strikes from 300nm. Just like during this period of innovation and transition, it will be up to civilian and military officials to lead the Navy forward and the Congress to adequately invest in the capabilities to ensure the CVN's continued relevance as an instrument of American power in the coming half-century.