Pacific Strategy IX: Inserting the UCAS Into Maritime Operations

The X-47B UCAS flew with its landing gear up for the first time on September 7

10/23/2011 – A key development for the evolution of U.S. Pacific operations will be the use of new remotely piloted vehicles as part of the C4ISR capabilities.  So called-unmanned systems are clearly not that; but are an important part of extending the reach and persistence of the strike and reconnaissance capabilities of the sea-based forces.

All of the RPAs suffer from vulnerabilities in their data links and no RPA has flown in Northern Edge into the teeth of hostile jamming and electronic warfare.  And a robust jamming or cyber environment is something that those who believe unmanned systems are the only future of airpower would soon see in combat demonstrations that they are not.

Rather than a key element of the future it would be wise to grasp that UAS have not been tested in a contested air combat environment nor their accident rate really discussed.

The X-47B UCAS flew with its landing gear up for the first time on September 7, 2011 during a test flight at Edwards AFB, California.  (Credit: Northrop Grumann)The X-47B UCAS flew with its landing gear up for the first time on September 7, 2011 during a test flight at Edwards AFB, California.  (Credit: Northrop Grumann)

If someone figures out what happens when Cyber Warriors fight UAS Drivers then maybe it will be time for some speculation. But early hard budgeting decisions to substitute reliance on UAS as a direct trade off for fighter pilots is yet to be validated in a demanding combat environment.

UAS primacy advocates have yet to produce a robust test in which the entire mission profile for a UAS was pitted against dedicated Cyber Warriors. A cyber team that was allowed to employ all of their techniques available-from jamming, spoofing, malware, denial of service, Trojans, backdoors, viruses, worms and even finding a deliberate saboteur (there are some evolving CI programs that look for such action) think PFC Manning and Wiki-leaks.

Additionally, UAS accident rates have not been addressed. As Col. (retired) Bill Buckey, a Marine F/A-18 Combat Pilot, LSO and the officer who directed the surge build out at Kandahar Afghanistan points out; “The accident rate for UAS ops at Kandahar was noticeable and that harsh environment is less demanding than a pitching Carrier Deck–an operational environment that includes CV ops is as of yet uncharted territory for UAVs.”

Nonetheless, RPAs will be an important part of the evolving wolfpack con-ops of air operations over Areas of Interest.  The F-22s and F-35s can work interactively with RPAs to establish a new concept of operations to leverage, and control deployed assets to shape effective strike and reconnaissance operations in Areas of Interest.

(See further our series on this topic: ; ; ; and“forcing-function”-of-the-5th-generation-aircraft-2/)

A key capability which the USN is developing to provide such an RPA system is the X47B.

The X-47B is a tailless, strike fighter-sized unmanned aircraft currently under development by Northrop Grumman as part of the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. Under a contract awarded in 2007, the company designed, produced and is currently flight testing two X-47B aircraft. In 2013, these aircraft will be used to demonstrate the first carrier-based launches and recoveries by an autonomous, low-observable-relevant unmanned aircraft. The UCAS-D program will also mature relevant carrier landing and integration technologies, and demonstrate, in 2014, autonomous aerial refueling by the X-47B aircraft. (Northrop Grumman)

The program brings a number of key enhancements to the sea-based force to the table.

First, it extends the strike range of an already funded core capability, namely, the carrier task force. Tactical aircraft have limited range; the UCAS has much greater range and reach. This makes it valuable in and of itself, but extending the reach of the new tactical aviation asset to be deployed to the fleet, namely the F-35, enhances its value. The sensor and communication capabilities of the F-35 are significant, but the reach of the aircraft remains within tactical ranges; the UCAS has forward strategic strike reach as well as ISR and communications reach-back to the tactical assets.

The UCAS can spearhead the entire sensor and strike grid put up by the carrier task force.

Second, the UCAS will be the first unmanned system developed in the wake of the deployment of the new F-35. The F-35 as a “flying combat system” should be a generator of change in the unmanned fleet.

The development and then deployment of the UCAS will be integrally interconnected with the F-35, and as such can take advantage of commonality in sensors and communications with the new manned aircraft. Shaping a common concept of operations between the F-35 and the UCAS can provide an important stimulus for change for the US Air Force as well.

Third, it is highly likely that the US Air Force new bomber program will be shifted to the right in funding priorities. This provides a significant opportunity for the US Air Force to learn from the US Navy’s experience in deploying the UCAS with the F-35 to shape a possible unmanned successor for the manned bomber.

A template could be shaped by the Navy, which could provide important lessons learned in shaping the US Air Force’s strategy to work the future of its unmanned programs with manned aircraft.

Fourth, the company building the UCAS demonstrator, Northrop Grumman, can draw on significant lessons learned in their other unmanned programs, such as Global Hawk, and on their core contributions in sensors and communications to the F-35 to provide a realistic development to production program for the new UCAS aircraft.

The UCAS will provide a multi-mission capability for the joint and coalition force structure. It should not be understood as a stand-alone platform, which is of value only in the most extreme warfighting conditions. It is NOT a specialized asset, rather it is a multi-mission asset useful across the spectrum of conflict and in the diverse concepts of operations which the U.S. Navy, and the joint and coalition forces are likely engage in against the most likely threats of the next two decades.

The UCAS will be a significant asset in the formation of the new concepts of operations for distribution aerospace forces. Among the forward deployed stealth assets, a significant sharing of ISR, C2 and strike functions will be shared, and communicated to other assets in supporting roles.

The UCAS with its distinctive stealth capabilities will become an important node in the new air operations network which can be used in command and control functions, as a forward air controller identifying targets for either stealth or legacy aircraft, as strike platforms leading an attack or supporting an attack by providing more weapons on targets needed by the manned stealth aircraft.

The UCAS will an important contributor to fighting the hybrid wars facing America and its allies. With the diffusion of advanced technologies, both commercial and military, U.S. and allied militaries cannot count on a clearly defined spectrum of conflict from low to high intensity of operations; Low intensity can become mid-intensity rapidly. You do not want to bring a knife to a gunfight, especially when you are not certain of who is defining the nature of the conflict or its tactical or strategic reach.

A modular UCAS brings a diversity of capabilities to the battlespace, ranging from command and control support, situational awareness, providing crucial links in a distributed electronic or cyber war attack, initial strike weapons, additional support strike weapons. In addition, these capabilities are launched from an alternative airfield at sea with a different set of trajectories than land-based facilities, which further enhance the capability of the joint or coalition force.

The UCAS also can provide an important tool in support of insertion forces. The USMC focuses on the need for a new approach to sea basing. As the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force and the USMC augment their Special Forces capabilities, and in the case of the U.S. Air Force and USMC the Osprey is seen as a key tool for rapid force insertion, the UCAS can provide a crucial support element for rapidly inserted ground-air forces.

The introduction of a stealthy UAV provides the top cover for the insertion of Special Forces for raiding or counter-terrorism operations. Insertion forces by definition can be rapidly withdrawn as well. The U.S. after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might well consider the advantage of rapidly inserted forces to deal with the suppression of local threats creating global consequences.

The USMC for certain, and several allies as well will deploy the F-35B. And perhaps the U.S. Air Force as it reconsiders its position within the re-set of power projection forces might acquire this aircraft as well. The STOVL aircraft has many advantages for concepts of operations, including deploying ashore on rugged “airfields” and operating from support structures at sea or on the air.

Dependent upon the amount of time ashore and where operating the USMC has developed an effective plan for support of the dispersed force ashore. The advantage of “airfields” not known ahead of actual deployment is significant; a UCAS as providing for early and continuing ISR or defensive support for forward deployed STOVL airfields is compelling.

And finally, the UCAS can provide a significant contribution to an “enduring littoral presence” mission for the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy has struggled to define its littoral mission. When the service operated “from the sea” construct, the littoral were simply space through which strike and sea control was exercised. In the world of today and the next decades, engagement in the littorals for relatively long duration is a crucial mission.

As the U.S. Navy considers acquisition of the littoral combat ship (LCS), the question of how to sustain the operation of these ships or how to combine them with other littoral assets such as an engaged USMC will become significant. The UCAS will provide a significant airborne asset to support the LCS in its initial engagement and provide sustained support as desired.

(To read further: and

This is a contribution to the strategic whiteboard.