Thursday, July 26, 2012

Unmanned Carrier Aircraft (UCLASS)

The Navy is working to develop a carrier based, unmanned strike aircraft.  This Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft would provide long range, stealthy strike capability for use in the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) scenario.

Before I go any further, let me say this up front - I'm not against UCLASS, at all.  Potentially, they could be very useful.  However, the basic concept as applied to the Chinese A2/AD scenario has some serious challenges to overcome that deserve to be discussed in the face of the Navy’s typical rush to acquisition.  Just as with “littoral” and “AirSea Battle”, I fear that the Navy is latching onto “UCLASS” as another acquisition justification buzzword without adequately exploring the underlying concept. 

UCLASS - The Right Concept?

Let’s take a closer look at the underlying concept.  The Chinese A2/AD zone is visualized as being about 1000 nm out from the mainland.  So, assuming a launch from outside the zone against targets on or deep inside the mainland, an aircraft would need to be able to fly 1000-1500 nm.  Of course, the range of the weapon carried by the aircraft could extend the effective striking range of the UCLASS.  During the course of penetration, the UCLASS would have to pass through many radar zones, hundreds of patrolling aircraft, and hundreds of ground AAA and SAM installations. 

So, we can see that a UCLASS needs extraordinary range, something on the order of a combat radius of 1000-1500 nm.  It will also need highly effective stealth and/or great speed to avoid or outrun threats.  Finally, it would be nice if the payload were greater than one or two weapons.  Having flown many hundreds of miles and evaded hundreds of threats it would be silly to only be able to strike one or two targets.  The risk/reward balance just isn’t there without a much greater payload.  And, lest we’ve forgotten, the UCLASS has to be small enough to fit on a carrier.

The Navy’s current prototype UCLASS is the X-47B Pegasus.  Here’s some of the relevant specifications.

Range (one way) – 2100 nm
Combat Radius (estimated) – 500 nm
Weapons Load – 4500 lb
Speed – subsonic
Cruise – 0.45 mach
Wingspan – 62 ft (31 ft folded)

Comparing the X-47B specs to our desired performance, we can see that the prototype’s combat radius is half to one third of that needed.  Remember, that the A2/AD zone is, essentially, all water.  The targets of interest, aside from the occasional ship, are all on the mainland.  Penetrating half way accomplishes nothing.  Of course, this is a prototype so the range can be increased, right?  Well, yes, but longer range means bigger fuel storage which means a bigger, heavier aircraft and the bigger it is, the harder it’s going to be to operate and fit on a carrier.  The prototype is already larger than an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet (wingspan = 44 ft).  The largest aircraft currently on carriers is the E-2 Hawkeye with a wingspan of 80 ft. 

You may be observing that the range is 2100 nm and thinking that’s a 1050 nm round trip.  That should be plenty of range, right?  You’d be correct except that range is non-combat loaded and assumes a straight line course at the most economical speed and altitude profile.  Adding roundabout waypoints to avoid high threat areas, adding a combat weapons load, and performing evasive or high speed avoidance maneuvers seriously cuts into the range, hence, the estimate of a 500 nm combat radius.  If you don’t believe this, go check out the Hornet’s (or any plane’s) range versus combat radius figures.

Speed is the next obvious deficiency.  A subsonic aircraft (only about 350 kts cruising speed) is going to have a hard time penetrating a thousand mile A2/AD zone and escaping threats along the way.  Let’s be blunt – it can’t.  Unfortunately, there’s a Catch-22 at work, here.  The only way to make the aircraft faster is to increase fuel consumption which decreases the combat radius which leads us right back to having to make a significantly bigger aircraft to carry much more fuel.

Finally, weapons load is extremely light.  The current F/A-18E/F has a weapons capacity of 17,500 lbs which is way bigger than the X-47B’s 4500 lbs.  Again, the only way to increase the payload is to make the aircraft bigger. 

Do you see the trend, here?  The only way to meet the notional requirements for a useful UCLASS is to make it much bigger.  I guess there’s a reason why the B-1 and B-2 deep penetration bombers are so big.

Of course, bigger creates its own set of problems.  The bigger the aircraft, the easier it is to detect.  The bigger the aircraft, the fewer can fit on a carrier.  The bigger the aircraft, the more expensive it is.

Have we left any issues out?  Yes, we have!  How about remote control communications?  Our ability to control UAVs at any distance is currently suspect and at the 1000 + nm ranges that a UCLASS would have to operate, maintaining reliable control communications becomes highly problematic.  In a war, communications satellites and relay nodes will likely be destroyed and heavy jamming will be the norm.  A successful UCLASS will have to overcome those communication challenges.

Closely related to communications is the issue of location awareness.  How will the UCLASS know where it is if GPS satellites go down at the start of conflict as everyone assumes they will?  To be fair, this problem is not unique to the UCLASS but affects every weapon and platform in the US military.  Still, there’s no point penetrating an A2/AD zone if you don’t know precisely where you are. 

I could go on but this serves to illustrate that the basic concept of a long range UCLASS is suspect under the current operating concept and technological capabilities.  A viable UCLASS would need closer to 2000 nm combat radius, much greater stealth or much greater speed to avoid detection/destruction, larger weapons carrying capacity, and reliable control communications over thousands of miles.

Can the Navy get from the initial data point of the X-47B to the desired aircraft?  Possibly, though the challenges are great.  The purpose of this discussion is to point out the magnitude of the challenges and suggest that the Navy not leap into this without addressing the problems and thinking them through.  Failure to do so is what led to the LCS and no one wants to see the flying version of the LCS!


  1. I'd argue a step further that attempting to conduct sustained flight operations 1,000 nm from an enemy coastline puts the carrier well within range of the history's first A2/AD weapon - the submarine.

    Folks seem to take for granted that we're going to have unfettered ability to use the maritime. We haven't faced an enemy with submarines in a shooting war for quite some time.

    That's the whole fallacy in this CVN-UCLASS concept - we're throwing additonal resources to maintain the viabilituy of a platform (the aircraft carrier) which is past its prime.

  2. Your point about submarines is well taken, however, the Navy does have a variety of anti-submarine weapons ranging from our own SSNs to helos to Burkes and so on. The mere fact that China (or any country) has subs doesn't mean that we can't operate a surface fleet. We simply have to give the submarine threat the respect and attention it deserves. Sadly, we've let our ASW capability atrophy but it can be reconstituted, albeit painfully.

    Whether the aircraft carrier is past its prime is a complex issue and I won't address it further in a simple comment. Instead, I'll offer this thought for you to ponder. Perhaps the carrier is still immensely useful but in a role other than the traditional strike role.

    Traditionally, the carrier was the strike platform and it had escorts to protect it. Now, however, Tomahawk-carrying Burkes constitute the long range, precision strike. Perhaps the carrier's role should be to escort and protect the Burkes (or future arsenal/barge type missile ships)?

    Just throwing out thoughts for your amusement!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hello,

    If you want to go way back, the aircraft carrier and its air wing were anti-surface warfare (ASuW) systems - and not strictly strike warfare (STW) systems as they are now.

    Carriers 'morphed' into a predominantly STW-orient system largely because we've enjoyed uncontested control of the seas. We're essentially using them as floating air force - vice warships.

    I personally think we need to bring the Navy back into the mindset of winning the war at sea, and not just figuring out how to deliver ordnance over the beach.

    An appreciation of the submarine threat is a big (and too long ignored) part of that. Just look at how hard of a time the Brits had with 1-2 old Argentinia diesels back in the Falklands War.

    But from a longer term perspective of acquiring new systems, I think the days of the supercarier are numbered. In a modern war at sea, if it can be found then it can be killed. We need to be thinking smaller and dispersed.

  4. Anon,

    The idea that carriers are somehow beyond their time is wrong.

    The carrier is a weapons platform which unlike other ships can have its weapons changed at anytime or even its systems simply by what aircraft its sends into the air and what they have on them at the time. Simply put its the most flexable weapons system we know of outside of the MKI human.

    Not only can it do strike, air-air, air-air refueling, ASuW, ASW, EW, SAR, it also using platforms like the E-2 extend the fleets eyes out to unprecidented ranges.

    The Soviets had many subs. However the soviets realised the US at the time had to much of a advantage out in the Deep blue. So it used a system of choke points. Diesel subs, nuke subs,
    Cruiser-carriers(armed with helicopters for amphib and ASW. And fighters for short range fleet cap), destroyers etc...

    Our SSN tech is better than anyone elses so we build the subs we need and have them run escort for our carrier task forces. Cruisers/destroyers for AA and BDM. Frigates (when the navy wisens the fuck up-excuse my french and builds more instead of LCS) for ASW. These form a complex bubble of protection around a CSG (carrier strike group).


    If you want small corvette sized ships your fleet wont see past the horizon and wont have trhe legs to get more than a few hundred miles. And when it gets there it will be weak. It will also reuire massive vessels to tag along to resupply them and do maintanence.

    Ships size is determine by the reality of Sea operations, weapons systems, roles, crew size and a host of other facts that are unchangeable.

    Small ships mean easier to take out and weaker power as well as range. Larger ships are far more powerful weapons wise far more survivability, versatility, and range.

    The navy needs to develope long range strike aircraft and fighters. We need a S-3 replacment also.

    This all one aircraft super multirole bullshit has to go.

    Notice the 2 weapons systems those countries in the asia pacific region go for the most right now? Subs and carriers.

    And notice the Chinese fleets being invisoned look almost exactly like US fleets.

    1. James,

      Your arguments sound eerily similar to the type of arguments the 'gun club' admirals were making up until December 1941. Nothing could ever replicate or replace the battleship.

      Let's agree for the moment that the carrier airwing represent the 'main battery' of the aircraft carrier.

      It takes ~10 years to design and field a new class of carrier-based naval aircraft. And because aircraft are increasingly expensive, we're deploying carriers designed to hold ~90 aircraft with airwings of ~60.

      Now let's take a look at the composition of the future carrier airwing. It's practically all short-ranged F/A-18s and eventually JSFs. I don't see much ASW or SUW capability.

      How does all of that add up to a flexible combat system? I see an increasingly vulnerable, fragile and extremely expensive system optimized for blowing up things over the beach. That could be a problem when/if we have to fight an enemy at sea.


      PS #1 - During Cold War, US CSGs operating in deep ocean were incredibly vulnerable to the Soviet reconnaissance & strike complex (Backfire, SSGNs, etc.) See 'Red Storm Rising' for description.

      PS #2 - I never once mentioned a small corvette sized vessel. I'm actually 'anti-LCS', so I'll allow you to have that argument with yourself.

      PS #3 - PLA(N) looks almost nothing like USN. In fact, it's pretty much an anti-USN! Their fleet design emphasizes lots of diesel submarines and destroyers.

      PS #4 - Sub-vs-sub in ASW game is great - as long as enemy doesn't bring more subs to the fight than you. Chinese are cranking out lots of relatively cheap and effective diesel subs.

    2. Matt,

      Good to have a name rather than anon! Always appreciated!

      I've gone on record in previous posts as stating that the value of a carrier lies in its air wing and current and near-future air wings are the least valuable they've ever been. On the plus side, that can be changed, though as you point out, not quickly.

      One other possible value to a carrier in the Chinese A2/AD scenario is that it is a floating airbase. A map of the Chinese A2/AD zone shows that we will have few, if any, usable airbases in the area. A carrier, even with a less than optimal air wing, may be the only source of airpower available to us (I'm assuming Japan will be neutralized either politically or physically).

      In short, if we develop an effective carrier aircraft then the carrier will be valuable. If not, their value is questionable.

      Regarding the Soviet scenario, I would not say that CSG's were incredibly vulnerable. Neither would I say that they weren't. The Soviet Union though they could effectively deal with them but, on the other hand, the US thought their Aegis system was adequate to deal with the threat. Since it never happened, we can only speculate which was more correct.

      You are correct that the current Chinese navy looks nothing like the US but they are moving strongly in that direction as their technology, experience, and funding allows. They're developing a carrier capability, emphasizing subs, and creating their own Aegis-type surface forces.

      Before we totally dismiss carriers we should ask ourselves why the Soviet Union was desperate to develop carriers, why China is trying to develop a carrier fleet, and why France, Britain, and India would all like (but can't afford) a US-style carrier capability.

      In closing, Matt, if you don't see carriers as having value in today's combat environment, how do you envision defeating the Chinese A2/AD scenario? I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you, I'm just asking you to expand on your thoughts!

      Good thoughts. Thanks for the discussion!

    3. Hello,

      I appreciate the lively debate, and I will have to check your earlier posts on this subject. Some additional thoughts - apologize for the length!

      The Soviets never attempted to build carriers on the same scale as USN. The few 'true' carriers they built (Kutnetzov, Varyag) were optimized for AAW and ASUW. It's telling that these ships were classified as “heavy aircraft-carrying missile cruisers."

      I haven't seen anything that states that France, Britain, or India want anything like US CVN. The carriers they have or are pursuing are very modest in comparison. And why would they want something like a CVN-78? A CVN is an enormous political and financial commitment, and they can count on ours for free.

      China - as far as we know - is developing 1-2 aircraft carriers. And they appear nowhere near the size and capability of a Nimtz or Bush class. This does not to me indicate the same level of commitment to the concept as the USN, but time will tell.

      When I look at PLA(N), I see a balanced fleet designed to wrest control of the seas, largely in the WESTPAC. But when I look at USN, I see a fleet that has operated far too long in a 'naval vacuum'. It's carrier-centric focus is well suited to project power in the absence of an enemy navy, but that's about it.

      Please note that I am not completely 'anti-carrier'. I think they have their role in the Navy - but it is probably on the wane and certainly not affordable in the long run as the 'fleet centerpiece'.

      A CVN costs $13 billion, and generally deploys with three surface escorts at ~$2.5 billion each. That's $20 billion just to project power with <50 short-ranged strike fighters (current CVW = 48 F-18).

      Further - even if we did add in a theoretical UCLASS into the future CVW, this still doesn't address the fact that the vast majority of our carrier striking power is well outranged by the enemy. Will 3-4 UCLASS really make a difference when most of our strike aircraft can only reach out a few hundred miles?

      I'd also point out that, in an A2/AD fight, a CVN may become the ultimate 'self-licking ice cream cone'. It's an enormously expensive, big, and vulnerable target, and the thought of a 100,000 ton supercarrier and its 3,500 man crew sinking is almost unthinkable. We'll either have to commit an inordnate amount of resources to defend the CVN, or pull it out altogether.

      I believe we need to take a step back and see whether or not the whole concept of a carrier-heavy force structure is even viable in the A2 / AD environment 20-30 years hence. I don't yet have a firm conceptual answer, but am starting to believe the answer relies more on dispersion and numbers.



    4. The Ford is 13bil because it got tons of tech shoved into it immediatly like the DDG-1K and other such vessels. I can see the cost eventually going down to 10 or even lower.

      Whats more they operate for 40-50 years. You listed the F-35 and the F-18E/ that was it. Lets be honest. They also operate E-2/3 hawkeyes, Soon UCLASS, Helicopters etc, and can have new aircraft designed built and tested for them much easier if you skip the stealth shit and build off what is known.

      The S-3 and A-6 types i stated dont need to be super stealth of go mach 1.5. So they should be reletively simply to design and build. This would give back what we ALL agree has been lost.

      What ended the battleship wasnt the airplane. No what ended it was personel cost and range. The Iowa's which were designed to sail with the new fast carrier fleets performed perfectly. And such a vessel still could if we would fund them properly.

      No one is saying the carrier fleets are perfect we are saying the carrier itself is still perfectly relevent and will be for years to come. The problem is our current mix (or should i say non mix) of ALL STRIKE ALL THE TIME.

      Wana laugh? Suggest to a navy guy that maybe sense most of what the Navy does is Bomb and strike maybe it should invest in more bombers and a wings of pure fighter aircraft to provide the air-air component. After all that way everything could be done far more efficently and not hamper the fighters or bombers with the curse of compromised performance and extra cost.

      Note: no one ever refutes that todays force is doign alot of bombing its the idea of a non fighter it seems...

    5. You undoubtedly know the progression of Soviet carrier development. There is absolutely no question that they were building towards a true US-style supercarrier. They just didn't quite get there before the collapse.

      China is quite clearly on the same developmental path.

      Remember that a country that has never designed, built, or operated carriers would not attempt to jump into the deep end on their first attempt. They would build smaller carriers to gain design, construction, and operational experience and then progressively build larger ones just as the Soviets were in the process of doing and China is currently doing.

      Britain, France, and India repeatedly examine supercarriers everytime the opportunity presents itself. Of course, fiscal reality rears its head and they settle on scaled down designs. The fact that they can't afford supercarriers doesn't indicate a lack of interest. In fact, their concept design studies clearly demonstrate their desires. If they had no interest in large carriers, they wouldn't keep looking at them.

      How do you see smaller, dispersed ships operating with respect to the Chinese A2/AD scenario? The flip side of smaller and dispersed is that it's difficult to concentrate combat power and the individual ships are susceptible to being overwhelmed and picked off one by one. This is exactly what the Navy is currently wrestling with - how to deal with the A2/AD scenario.

      Anyone who advocates getting rid of (or greatly scaling back) carriers has to have a method to provide air support and deal with the A2/AD.

      Conversely, anyone who believes carriers are critically important has to state how carriers, with their anemic air wings, will effectively operate under the A2/AD scenario.

      So, my challenge to you is to describe how you visualize the US dealing with the A2/AD scenario if you don't think carriers are part of the answer. To be fair, you stated that you don't yet have a firm conceptual answer and that's OK. I don't think the Navy has one, either! I would simply offer the thought that before you condemn the carrier to history, be sure you have an alternative to deal with the A2/AD.

      Good discussion!

    6. The Navy made the same claim about reducing costs to $10B on subsequent CVN-78s. I'm just not buying it - and neither is Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

      The 2020 airwing as described by the Navy is 40-50 strike fighters, 4-6 Growlers, 4-6 Hawkeyes, and 16 helos. In terms of combat power, it is mostly F-18s and F-35s.

      We're probably in closer agreement than you might imagine. I think 'IF' the navy is going to stick with a carrier-centric force structure, it needs an organic fixed-wing ASW capability. The 'IF' is key, since I stand by my statement that Navy should re-think the role and viability of carriers.

      As you stated, carriers are built to last 40+ years. What will the battlespace look in the 2050s? Will they even be survivable? One might ask what folks were thinking about viability of the battleship in 1901 - and how that compared to 1941.

    7. Oops - sorry above comments was to James.


  5. "So, we can see that a UCLASS needs extraordinary range, something on the order of a combat radius of 1000-1500 nm. It will also need highly effective stealth and/or great speed to avoid or outrun threats. Finally, it would be nice if the payload were greater than one or two weapons. Having flown many hundreds of miles and evaded hundreds of threats it would be silly to only be able to strike one or two targets."

    And that is why the navy keeps going for 200mil dollar planes.

    Stealth is just a dogma. The secret to doing away with stealth is with radar tech that currently exist. Everyone is developing better methods for it. Its been around sense the 50's atleast.

    Speed? Can it go mach 3? No then it doesnt matter much like the LCS.

    The Hornet is the perfect example of trying to make a strike aircraft both very long range and very fast. IT NEVER GOES THAT FAST. If its clean then it can hit its top speed other than that its sub sonic. So build a subsonic strike aircraft with no stealth guess what you can afford 2 of them for a single F-35. And a Longe range Fighter to fly escort.

    Pick a damn mission stick to it. The Long range strike A-6 like aircraft? It can also carry long range missiles....then when your E-2 picks up the Enemy on his longrange radar the A-6's empty their racks.

    The A-6 was able to perform both strike, EW, Tanker, and other roles specificly because of its no nonsense design.

    Get back to that.

    I think in the future EW is going to be worth far more than stealth.

    1. James,

      Super Hornet is not very long-range - and not particularly fast either.

      Combat radius of Super Hornet is only ~350 nm. And at Mach 1.8, it's not all that fast either. Carrier fighters are almost always inferior to contemporary land-based designs.

      Good article on subject of aircraft range and its impact on the CVW by Bob Work:


    2. Yes i know thats what im talking about. The Superhornet because of the Obsession for multirole was left wanting in many area's.

      They werent as important when they had the longer ranged A-6 or S-3 to work refueling but with those gone the Hornets count on other hornets to refuel them which doesnt work to well at all.

    3. Matt,

      Thanks for the link. I hadn't seen that one before. I'm working on reading it but it's going to take some time. It's pretty long!

  6. From everything I see on the internet, UCLASS is not meant to directly address or solve a Chinese A2/AD problem. It is primarily for persistent ISR with an additional "light strike" capability. According to all internet sources I can find, the UCLASS requirements weren't even finalized as of the date that this blog was written--so how can you claim that UCLASS requirements revolve around A2/AD? Ever think that the Navy just noticed how useful the CIA's Predators have been, and would like something of their own that they control for similar types of missions???

    1. Actually, there are numerous Navy documents and public statements from top leadership discussing the ultimate aim of the UCLASS effort and that aim is exactly the Chinese A2/AD scenario. The Navy recognizes that it currently has no long range, deep strike capability and views the UCLASS as the ideal means to provide that. The unmanned nature allows the aircraft to perform the extremely high risk penetrations that an A2/AD calls for.

      The current developmental versions of the UCLASS (can't even really call them that, to be fair) are much more modest in scope and requirement. To give credit to the Navy, they are taking a slow and thorough approach to UCLASS technology development, unlike with the LCS (a lesson learned, perhaps?). These efforts are probably what you're reading about. Make no mistake, though, the ultimate aim is the Chinese scenario.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    2. Any unmanned system is currently about endurance and surveillance with optional light strike capability (low observeability translates into endurance against developed opponents). The coordination for heavy strikes seems better carried out by humans on board.
      Light strike capability can be quite devastating if it is combined with precision and intelligence to hit essential components and not necessarily blow the whole compound to pieces.
      There's of course a component of aircraft carriers hunting terrorists in the mountains, but that's about rhetoric, political funding and training grounds. Don't take these at face value.
      All in all a good concept if it serves as a range extension for cruise missiles that double the combat radius and has some aerial refueling.