“China is building a modern and regionally powerful navy with a limited but growing capability for conducting operations beyond China’s near-seas region,” said CRS report “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.”
“Observers believe China wants its military to be capable of acting as an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) force—a force that can deter U.S. intervention in a conflict in China’s near-seas region over Taiwan or some other issue, or failing that, delay the arrival or reduce the effectiveness of intervening U.S. forces.”
Congressional Research Service report said, “China’s naval modernization effort encompasses a broad array of platform and weapon acquisition programs, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), submarines, surface ships, aircraft, and supporting C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems.”
The report found Navy’s plans for developing and procuring long-range carrier-based aircraft and long-range ship- and aircraft-launched weapons as appropriate. Aircraft and weapons with longer ranges could help Navy ships and aircraft achieve results while remaining outside the ranges of Chinese A2/AD systems that can pose a threat to their survivability.
Some observers have stressed a need for the Navy to proceed with its plans for developing and deploying a long-range, carrier-based, unmanned UAV called the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft. Some of these observers view the acquisition of a long-range carrier-based UAV as key to maintaining the survivability and mission effectiveness of aircraft carriers against Chinese A2/AD systems in coming years
“During its development, the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft and its predecessors have been proposed to fill a number of roles and operate in a variety of air defense environments. The effort to choose among those roles and determine final requirements for the system has led to controversy and delay in executing the program,” says Congressional Research Service’s report by Jeremiah Gertler.
After program decision in 2002, by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) mandating a joint program for Both navy and Airforce, DARPA launched a Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility, and operational value of a networked system of high-performance, weaponized unmanned air vehicles.
Missions included SEAD, electronic attack, precision strike, penetrating surveillance/reconnaissance, and persistent global attack. “The operational focus of this system is on those combat situations and environments that involve deep, denied enemy territory and the requirement for a survivable, persisting combat presence … operating and surviving in denied airspace.
After 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, which called for called for the J-UCAS to be terminated. The Navy’s UCAV (referred to variously as N-UCAV and UCAV-N) was designed to fit a relatively small niche. The Navy planned to continue using manned aircraft to suppress enemy air defenses (SEAD) and perform electronic attack. N-UCAV was thus intended “for reconnaissance missions, penetrating protected airspace to identify targets for the attack waves” consisting of manned aircraft.
In 2006, as part of the N-UCAS program, the Navy initiated the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program, intended to demonstrate the technical feasibility of operating unmanned air combat systems from an aircraft carrier.
UCLASS Draft RFP
The UCLASS system will provide persistent ISR with precision strike support in a range of missions including irregular warfare and major combatant operation environments. UCLASS will be a major step forward in achieving integration of manned and unmanned systems within the Carrier Air Wing (CVW) and will contribute to increasing seabased capacity across the spectrum of maritime and littoral missions. UCLASS will allow a CVW to provide continuous 24/7 ISR/strike capability. The UCLASS system will be sustainable onboard an aircraft carrier, as well as ashore, and will be designed to minimize increases in the logistics footprint of the current CVW.
The UCLASS system will have the ability to pass command and control information along with sensor data to other aircraft, naval vessels, and ground forces. Sensor data will be transmitted, in either raw or processed forms, at appropriate classification levels, to exploitation nodes afloat and ashore (e.g. Distributed Common Ground/Surface System – Navy).
The UCLASS system will achieve these capabilities through the use of a carrier-suitable, semi-autonomous, unmanned Air Segment; a Control System and Connectivity Segment; and a Carrier Segment.
US Navy’s X-47B
The Northrop Grumman X-47B is a demonstration unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) designed for aircraft carrier-based operations. The X-47B is a tailless jet-powered blended-wing-body aircraft capable of semi-autonomous operation and aerial refueling.
The hybrid wing-bodied X-47B, a stealth plane nicknamed “the Robot” is 38 feet long, with a 62-foot wingspan with a gross takeoff weight of 44,000lbs and a payload of 4,500lbs. It is capable of flying at altitudes of up to 40,000 feet at high subsonic speeds for six hours, and has a range of some 2100nm without refuelling.
The aircraft is highly autonomous, can fly a pre-programmed mission under computer control and then returning to base at the mouse-click of its operator, who monitors its operation but does not actively directly pilot it.
The UCAV conducted its maiden flight in 2011 before completing ground tests and commencing test flights in 2013. In-flight refueling tests began at the start of 2015. In August 2014, the US Navy announced that it had integrated the X-47B into carrier operations alongside manned aircraft.
UCAVs can also carry a wide range of ammunition, including the MK-84, GBU-31, BLU-109, MK-83, MK-82, GBU-32, GBU-103, GBU-104, GBU-105, AGM-114, AGM-65E, CBU-99, GBU-12, MK-82, MK-46/50/54, and so forth, making them extremely versatile and capable of carrying out missions over both sea and land as well as engaging in aerial combat. Importantly, the X-47B would allow US aircraft carriers to maintain a distance of more than 500 nautical miles off the coast of mainland China in an assault
Northrop Grumman intends to develop the prototype X-47B into a battlefield-ready aircraft, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system, which will enter service in the 2020s
In May 2015, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said “What we’re looking at UCLASS is to be the bridge between manned systems and completely autonomous unmanned strike — which will be sometime in the 2020s — to develop that program using UCLASS to get us there.”
The final Navy requirements for UCLASS’ air segment are contingent upon the findings of a Department of Defense UAV strategic program review (SPR, pronounced spear), which will be finalized later this year.
UCLASS has been among the service’s most hotly debated acquisition programs in recent memory. The majority of the naval aviation establishment is pushing for a high endurance aircraft that would be primarily a carrier-based information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform with a light strike capability while some members in Congress and experts outside the Navy are pushing for a heavily armed stealthy penetrating strike aircraft to elude more sophisticated enemy air-defenses.
“Aerial refueling technology is central to the debates about UCLASS because, if the drone is configured to travel extremely long-distances without needing to be refueled, that affects the size, shape and contours of the body of the aircraft due to the need to engineer a larger fuel tank, Kris Osborn quotes analysts.
A larger fuel tank can impact the design of the drone and affect its stealth properties by changing the radar cross-section of the aircraft. Proponents of stealthy design may envision comparatively smaller or differently shaped fuel tank in order to lower the radar cross-section of the aircraft. However a differently-configured fuel tank might result in the need for more aerial refueling as a way to extend the aircraft’s range and ensure long-endurance ISR, analysts have explained.