Just as the U.S. Navy looked set to take the lead in unmanned aircraft, it's about to deliberately drop the ball. Or maybe that's the baton, as the Navy took up the lead in unmanned combat air systems (UCAS) from the U.S. Air Force when it dropped out in 2006.
Now the Navy is considering halting its ground-breaking carrier-based UCAS demonstration in order to save a billion dollars over its $800-billion-dollar budget plan for the next five years.
This is the service that plans to break new ground by operating manned and unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft from the same bases, with the same crews, that plans to operate manned and unmanned helicopters side by side from the decks of small ships, with the same crews.
This is the service that is viewed with envy by the Air Force because it has a coherent and pragmatic tactical aircraft modernisation plan, one that keeps today's fighter in production until tomorrow's is ready. This is also the service that is becoming so obsessed with ships that soon any aircraft, manned or unmanned, will have to be painted battleship grey and float to make it past the budgeteers.
This is the service that needs to remember the A-12 debacle and the perils of trying to leapfrog generations without having spent anything on developing and maturing the required technology.
Photo: Northrop Grumman
A Navy UCAS is not needed on carrier decks before 2025. But it will never be even an option unless it can be demonstrated that manned and unmanned aircraft can coexist on and around the carrier. Without that demonstration, when the Navy starts getting serious about its F/A-XX around the middle of next decade, a manned aircraft will be its only option. That may be what some flyboys want, but they should think it through.
The Navy only has the F/A-18E/F because it screwed up the A-12. The Navy will only have the F-35 because the Air Force needed it too. No one but the Navy wants F/A-XX. And, by 2025, no one but the Navy will think a manned aircraft is the only option.
This is a service that has an opportunity to be relevant in almost any war scenario ahead of it, from persistent ISR over insurgents to long-range strikes against China - but unless it makes the down-payment now, that chance will evaporate. Or become very costly and risky when it is needed.
Scepticism about UCAS is understandable. Only the Navy faces a stark either/or choice - within the tight confines of the carrier, every UCAS would displace a manned aircraft. So it must be convinced that unmanned aircraft can do the mission without disrupting its precisely orchestrated carrier operations. And that is the intent of the X-47B UCAS-D demonstrator.
Before it drops the axe on UCAS-D, the Navy needs to consider this scenario. It's 2025 and manned F/A-XXs are on the carrier decks, but can't be used because the mission need is persistent ISR, or the politicians can't countenance pilot losses, or the carrier is standing so far off for safety that they can't reach their targets. Was it worth saving a billion dollars?