The Navy’s First Carrier Drone Will Be a Flying Gas Tank
Sailing branch insists aerial tanking is the right mission
Beginning in 2007, the U.S. Navy spent billions of dollars experimenting with a fighter-size, jet-powered, aircraft carrier-launched robotic demonstrator aircraft that, in concept, could have formed the basis of a stealthy, long-range attack drone for future carrier air wings.
Nine years later in its 2017 budge proposal, the American sailing branch asked to transition the drone-demonstration program into a full-fledged development effort aiming to produce large numbers of carrier-compatible drones in just a few years.
That might seem like good news for advocates of autonomous air power. But in a surprise move, the Navy has stripped the drone of most of its high-end combat capabilities … and has transformed it into primarily an aerial tanker tasked with refueling other aircraft in mid-air.
The Navy insisted that starting with a tanker is the best way to get drones onto carrier decks quickly and begin exploring procedures and tactics for autonomous warplanes. But lawmakers, who must approve the sailing branch’s plans, are already expressing skepticism.
The Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program, or UCAS-D, that began in 2007 involved two X-47B air vehicles built by Northrop Grumman. The two drones with their distinctive “cranked-kite” shapes spent years flying from land bases then, in the summer of 2013, made their historic first landings and takeoffs from aircraft carriers at sea.
The two X-47Bs, remotely guided by controllers on the ground or aboard a carrier, subsequently tested their ability to autonomously receive fuel from aerial tankers.
While the unmanned demonstrators went through their paces, military planners and elected officials in Washington, D.C. debated next steps. In 2013 there were two camps inside the military. One argued that the follow-on combat-capable drone — which the Navy dubbed the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS — should be stealthy, heavily armed and capable of penetrating heavy enemy air defenses. Like a robotic version of the Navy’s defunct A-12 stealth bomber design from the late Cold War.
The other camp wanted a lighter, less stealthy and less capable aircraft more akin to the Air Force’s propeller-driven Predator drone, which has proved useful hunting for insurgents and terrorists in undefended air space. The latter would have been easier and cheaper to develop and manufacture, but would have been less useful in a major war with, say, Russia or China.
Robert Work — then a civilian analyst, today the deputy defense secretary — reportedly preferred the more sophisticated drone. And he warned that the military would have to choose. “You can’t afford both,” Work said. “You have to make your bet.”
Lawmakers clearly desired the heavier version. Sensing that the Navy was beginning to drift toward the Predator-style drone, in 2013 Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, wrote to then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to demand a course change. “We believe the current path could limit the capability growth of the system,” the Congressman stated.
The X-47Bs wrapped up their eight-year development effort in mid-2015. And a few months later, the Navy announced its plan for a production drone — one that surprised many outside observers. The sailing branch told Congress it wanted to scrap UCLASS and replace it with a new program called the Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System, or CBARS.
That’s right. Instead of being a bomber like the A-12 or an armed surveillance vehicle like the Predator, the new drone would be … a tanker.
The Navy’s rationale made some sense. Since retiring the KA-6D in 1997, the sailing branch has lacked a dedicated, carrier-based tanker for extending the limited range of its F/A-18 strike fighters. S-3 anti-submarine planes handled most of the aerial tanking duties until they, too, retired from frontline service in 2009. After that, F/A-18s topped off their tanks from … other F/A-18s, carrying extra underwing fuel pods and reelable hoses that the receiving planes could plug in to.
The Navy calls that “buddy-tanking.”
But requiring strike fighters to also act as tankers effectively removed as much as a quarter of a carrier air wing’s combat power, according to Navy statistics. Adding a drone tanker to the air wings would allow the F/A-18s to resume doing what they do best — fight other planes in the air and attack targets on the surface.
And there was a parallel line of thinking. The Navy explained that making its first carrier-launched drone a tanker at first would speed up the process of integrating robots in carrier air wings — and make it easier to add more-sophisticated unmanned aircraft thereafter. “We’ll get out there now and we’ll start learning,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in March. “As technology becomes available, we’ll incorporate that.”
Indeed, the sailing branch claimed that the same airframe that handles the initial drone-tanking mission could evolve to become an autonomous strike fighter. “We’re probably going to drop some of the high-end specs and try to grow the class and increase the survivability [later],” Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, a deputy chief of naval operations, told the news Website of the U.S. Naval Institute.
Congressman Forbes, still sitting on the same House subcommittee, expressed mixed feelings about the Navy’s drone scheme. “I continue to believe that the carrier air wing’s most glaring capability gap is its lack of long-range penetrating strike, although an alternative to ‘buddy tanking’ is clearly also needed,” Forbes told trade publication Breaking Defense. “I look forward to examining the scenarios and analysis driving these programmatic decisions, and will continue pressing the Navy to fully harness the incredible potential of unmanned technology.”
The same four companies that were vying for the now-cancelled UCLASS program — Northrop, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Atomics — could still compete to win the CBARS contract. The Navy said it would release a formal request for proposals in 2016 or 2017, award a contract in 2017 or 2018 and deploy the first so-called RAQ-25s in the 2020s.