Building a Survivable, Exquisite, Expensive Unmanned Aircraft Misses the Point

A naval Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft (UCLASS) takes off.

A naval Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft (UCLASS) takes off. US Naval Institute

The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike aircraft should be at the heart of a comprehensive debate about the future of unmanned technology.

The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft should be at the heart of a comprehensive debate about the future of unmanned technology and related concept of operations. Unfortunately, the current debate is narrowly focused on how advanced, large, and expensive to make the UCLASS.

On one side of this debate, advocates for large, exquisite strike platforms imagine a future where unmanned aircraft replicate the capabilities of the latest advanced, multi-mission aircraft. In the middle of the spectrum, the U.S. Navy’s current UCLASS requirements outline a modestly stealthy platform emphasizing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and operating in a lightly contested environment; strike is a secondary mission within the current Navy plan.

On the other side of this much needed debate are those who see a world where the large and the few are overtaken by the small and the many. It does not strain the imagination to contemplate the advancements in miniaturization, sensors, and weapons technology that will continue the trends ushered in with precision weapons—hiding from detection will become increasingly difficult; dispersion of forces and capability is more and more important; and massing military capability will increase the probability and cost of combat losses.

Initial UCLASS fielding is projected seven to eight years from now in 2022-3 and we will be a decade closer to the rise of the small and the many. While it is not an either/or proposition, over-investment in unmanned platforms that are large, complex, and limited in numbers (because of exorbitant cost) will significantly disadvantage the United States in a major conflict ten to twenty years from now when the UCLASS and its decedents fly into combat.

Congress and the aircraft industry seem to want all eggs in an exquisite and expensive basket. Recently, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) raised concerns about the survivability and weapons payload capability of the current UCLASS requirements and pressed for a strike aircraft capable of operating in a medium to high-threat environment with broadband stealth, 4,000 pounds of internal weapons payload, and in-air refueling capability. In effect, Senator McCain is calling for an unmanned F-35C Joint Strike Fighter.

The SASC Chairman’s desire for an advanced strike aircraft echoes a similar call in February from Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA 4), the House Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee Chairman. Congressman Forbes places a premium on aerial refueling, survivability, lethality, and payload. Lockheed Martin has stated that the UCLASS requires fifth-generation capability (stealth and other advanced multi-mission functions). A recent analysis in the March issue of Aerospace America, titled “The Manned-Unmanned Debate,” projects that next generation fighters are likely to be produced in manned and unmanned variants.

It should be self-evident that this focus on survivability in unmanned aircraft is almost a non sequiturforfeiting s a prime value of unmanned systems. Because there are no humans on board, unmanned systems can conduct more risky missions and are, almost by definition, expendable—unless they cost $50 million dollars a copy. At what price point do unmanned systems become non-expendable and require even more investment in survivability?

Advocates for large, costly, and few unmanned aircraft (not to mention manned aircraft) offer a vision of future air combat that is a continuation of today, where, as RAND scientist Martin Libicki writes, “Aircraft are optimized—at great expense—to win one-on-one (or one-on-not-too-many) duels against other aircraft and antiaircraft ground units.”

According to Libicki, however, “The fate of fifty million dollars’ worth of aircraft contesting fifty million dollars’ worth of [many small] sensors, emitters and micro-munitions may be far less satisfying.”

Libicki was one of the first to predict that stealth will lose the battle against detection and that the future battles will not be won by hiding from advanced sensors and weapons systems but by overwhelming them with numbers.

In 2010 John Arquilla, the swarm warfare visionary, provided recommendations to make conflict cheaper, smaller, and smarter. Arquilla argued that, “The United States is spending huge amounts of money in ways that are actually making Americans less secure… against smart countries building different sorts of militaries.”

In a similar vein, Wayne Hughes, the naval strategist, recommends that U.S. Navy ships should be simpler, less expensive, fielded in greater quantity, and that we should resist the tendency to create broad multi-mission platforms, concentrating vast capability into single platforms whose loss could be devastating. His arguments apply to air platforms as well. Numbers matter; we should increase quantity while diversifying the risk of combat losses.

Supporting an expensive and exquisite UCLASS, Senator McCain told the U.S. Navy that anything less would “operationally and strategically misguided.” However, failing to examine the alternatives to large, expensive, and numerically limited fifth and sixth-generation aviation (both manned and unmanned) is truly misguided—operationally, strategically, and fiscally. The small and the many is the way of the future; the United States can lead the advance or fly an exquisite, expensive, and small air force into the teeth of a future enemy’s swarm.