The U.S. Navy Is Going All in on Aircraft Carriers Armed with Drones

The U.S. Navy will be flying more and more aircraft carrier-launched attack drones in the future, operating more autonomous vehicles and building larger numbers of smaller boats. All of this is part of the service’s refined modernization strategy prioritizing unmanned undersea and surface vessels, fleet-wide networking, increased weapons integration and a larger submarine force. 

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was clear about the Navy’s future plans in an September 16 speech at the RAND corporation, saying “the fleet will be made up of more and smaller surface combatants, optionally-manned, unmanned and autonomous surface and subsurface vehicles; unmanned carrier based aircraft of all types; a larger and more capable submarine force,” according to a Pentagon transcript of his remarks. 

Unmanned carrier drone aircraft come as little surprise, given the pace at which the Navy is already building, testing and even deploying increasingly autonomous surface and undersea drone boats. The Navy’s Unmanned Surface Vessels, for example, are quickly reaching new levels of autonomous coordination, cross-domain networking and AI-generated mission networking. The service’s Ghost Fleet program, also fast developing, is increasingly demonstrating an ability to operate groups of unmanned systems in tandem able to share information, coordinate targeting, and assess navigational complexities. They can also increasingly merge otherwise disconnected missions such as mine-hunting, surface attack or integrated air-surface surveillance missions. 

Of course, unmanned attack drones launching from carriers naturally reduce risk to pilots otherwise flying manned aircraft, but they also bring a wide sphere of other advantages, including longer dwell time, greater endurance and the ability to conduct lower-risk attack operations against advanced air defenses. A drone can fly longer without having to return for pilots to rest, they can often carry more fuel for longer missions and, perhaps most of all, they can be shot down with no lethal consequence to airmen or sailors. 

Also, with new advanced command and control systems emerging, forward operating drones can conduct attack missions with humans in charge of decisions about the use of lethal force. Longer attack ranges can also enable carriers to operate farther offshore, areas potentially less vulnerable to enemy anti-ship missiles. 

Moves to arm carriers with large amounts of drones is something surely anticipated by the Navy, which is already building a mini “drone headquarters” into its Ford and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers. 

Launching drones from carriers represents an unprecedented technical leap for the Navy as it seeks to expand surveillance and combat range and mission scope for its Carrier Air Wings. It is not easy, however, as landing drones on carriers requires advanced degrees of autonomy. Autonomy-enabling algorithms must be engineered to accommodate rough sea conditions, wind-speeds and other complex variables associated with landing an aircraft on a carrier. Fortunately, the Navy has progressed much with these efforts and learned many key lessons due to the development of its carrier-launched MQ-25 Stingray drone refueler slated to emerge in just the next few years. 

The new drone headquarters, as explained in January of this year at the Surface Navy Association Annual Symposium by senior Navy leaders, is being engineered as an adaptation to existing ship-based structures and configurations. The center, called Unmanned Aviation Warfare Center, will coordinate command and control and mission operations from deck-launched drones

Kris Osborn is the new Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters

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Kris Osborn