Tuesday, December 10, 2013


“When unmanned systems are able to operate from U.S. carriers, the capabilities of the Navy will grow proportionally.”

This quote from Lt.Col. Freeman (1) sums up the attitude of many.  UAVs will be the next great weapon and the Navy will gain immense capabilities with their advent.  Is this true?  Are UAVs that powerful and capable?

The Navy is heavily invested in unmanned aerial vehicles operating from carriers as a routine part of the air wing.  Whether it’s UCAS, UCLASS, or whatever flavor of UAV, the Navy views UXXX as the future of naval aviation.  I’d like to examine this movement a bit closer.  Does it make sense?  Can UXXXs replace manned aircraft?  Are they economical?  Can they operate in combat?  And so on …

The Navy has indicated several possible roles for carrier based UXXXs:

  • Deep penetration and strike
  • Fighter combat
  • Land and surface strike
  • Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)
  • Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS)
  • Communications, network, and positional relay nodes

There are a few notable omissions from the list.  As far as I’m aware, the Navy hasn’t seriously suggested UXXXs for:

  • ASW
  • Tanker
  • ECM

The Navy has also suggested several characteristics that supposedly make UXXXs better suited for naval aviation then manned aircraft:

Stealth – The Navy has suggested that UXXXs are stealthy, however, current and projected models aren’t particularly stealthy.  The small size of some of the common UAVs in operation today may have lead to a claim of stealthiness but the larger UXXXs have only moderate stealth characteristics, at best.

Endurance – Taking the pilot out of the equation means that the UXXX endurance is limited only by fuel and mechanical reliability.  Endurance is potentially a strong point, without doubt.

Performance – Maneuverability of manned aircraft is limited by pilot G-force tolerance.  Again, taking the pilot out the equation means that maneuverability is limited only by the physical strength of the aircraft’s structure and electronics.  Maneuverability can, theoretically, be increased significantly.

Risk Tolerance – Clearly, without the threat of lost aircrew, risk tolerance increases.  Missions may be attempted that otherwise would be rejected.

On the other hand, the Navy has glossed over some drawbacks to unmanned aircraft.  They include:

Payload – UXXX payloads are not generally greater than conventional aircraft.  While greater payloads could be accommodated, they would have to come at the expense of fuel (hence endurance) or stealth (meaning external carriage).  For the foreseeable future, payloads will likely be the same or even a bit less than manned aircraft.

Communications – The Achilles Heel of unmanned vehicles is communications.  The “pilot” must be in continuous and very near real time communication with the aircraft.  This will be problematic in an ECM environment and over the vast distances envisioned in many of the operating scenarios.  Communication lags of seconds or even fractional seconds hugely increase the likelihood of crashes when operating at low altitudes and/or high speeds.

Situational Awareness – Anyone who has “flown” a simulator knows that the situational awareness is far, far less than that enjoyed by an actual pilot.  While this may not be an issue for guiding an aircraft from one point to another, it presents a near impossible problem to overcome in combat where situational awareness is everything.

Cost – UXXX will be the same size and complexity as a corresponding manned aircraft and, hence, will cost the same.  Having a pilot in the cockpit doesn’t really add any significant additional cost to the airframe.  In fact, on an overall basis, given the cost of the equipment for the remote “pilot”, the cost may be greater for unmanned aircraft.

In addition to the missions and characteristics we just discussed, there are also a couple of issues that need careful consideration.

Risk versus Cost Effectiveness – Yes, we may be willing to take on more dangerous missions, however, greater risk also means greater attrition.  Given that the UXXX will be as expensive, if not more so, than a corresponding manned aircraft, risky missions that become one-way missions will become very expensive missions.  Are we prepared to “throw away” $100M+ unmanned aircraft?  Perhaps, if the reward justifies the risk.  The point is that reduced risk does not mean disregard for loss.  Many people seem to have the idea that we can throw UAVs at high risk missions with absolutely no thought.  While we may not be risking pilots we will be risking huge amounts of money and valuable assets.  We will not be able to replace $100M+ unmanned aircraft any easier and quicker than we could F-35s.  Ironically, the cost of highly capable UXXX aircraft is going to negate the UXXX’s risk reduction, the main beneficial characteristic, to a significant degree.

Higher Loss Rate – Whatever mission the UXXX flies, the loss rate will be higher than for manned aircraft.  UXXX will be subject to the same attrition due to enemy forces as manned aircraft.  Additionally, the UXXX will suffer losses from “glitches” in communication and control.  Indeed, we see this now with UAVs wandering off and crashing with some degree of regularity if not frequency. 

What is the takeaway from all this?  Well, UXXX aircraft definitely have some usefulness but are not the magic answer to all aviation needs.  It’s disturbing that the UXXX discussion seems to have leapfrogged over the question of usefulness and straight into what type of UXXX.  The Navy is champing at the bit to get UXXX onto carriers without having fully explored the missions, tactics, costs, and rationale.  This is eerily similar to the LCS development where the “need” for littoral combat was repeated so often that the discussion eventually just shifted to what type of vessel without the underlying rationale having been answered and we see how that worked out.  I believe there is a valid rationale for UXXX but it’s not the magic answer that Lt.Col. Freeman and so many others seem to believe.

(1) USNI Proceedings, “Assured Access, Anytime, Anywhere”, LtCol Freeman, Nov 2013, p.39


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    1. You're correct that current prototypes are generally smaller and (cheaper??) than manned aircraft. Remember, though, that the current versions are just technology demonstrators being used to prove concepts and capabilities. I'm looking ahead to when the finished products hit squadron service. They'll undoubtedly be as large or larger than current manned aircraft and probably cost as much or more.

      For example, the X-47B is a demonstrator. The Navy is looking at the X-47C as the finished product. The B has a wingspan of 62 ft while the C would have a span of 172 ft. That's gonna cost a bundle!

      My, you're an optimist about cost given the Navy's proven history of program mismanagement!! : )

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    1. I don't know enough about stealth to offer definitive opinions but the descriptions of the X-47B generally use phrases like "moderately stealthy". Who knows what that means? It's interesting though, that the F-35 is defended as "low observable" and other phrases implying a great degree of stealth while the X-47B which "looks" stealthier is called moderately stealthy. As I say, I can't offer an educated opinion.

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  3. How hard is it to provide secure communications to these things? Especially when its likely at least some of the circuit boards come from abroad? Is the 'Cylon option' a real fear? "Why is our UAV turning around...."

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  4. "Whatever mission the UXXX flies, the loss rate will be higher than for manned aircraft. UXXX will be subject to the same attrition due to enemy forces as manned aircraft."


    Uninformed critics of UAS often overlook the simple fact that the alternative to doing a mission set with a UAS is to attempt to accomplish the mission with manned aircraft.

    I remember seeing a study by RAND a few years back on how many F-16 sorties it would take to provide the same amount of coverage as a single Reaper orbit. The delta in fuel, sorties, and the number of aircrew and maintainers was simply astounding.

    In order to get 'equivalent effect' from a manned aircraft, you have to fly a lot more sorties. That means more takeoff and landings - which are the most dangerous phase of any flight. Especially for a fatigued pilot.

    So the superficial glance might indicate that UAS attrition is high. A more astute analyst would then ask... compared to what? Doing the same mission with manned aircraft is a lot more expensive.

    As far as combat losses - with a manned aircraft you may also lose a pilot. The economic costs of a pilot are easy to calculate (education, training, etc). The opportunity costs of a human life are a bit more complicated.

    There are also the 2nd order effects. History has show that the US will expend significant resources to recover a downed pilot. In Vietnam we often cancelled entire operations and lost several aircraft and pilots in rescue ops.

    Lastly, a US pilot in enemy hands is an enormous propaganda boom - especially compared to a broken drone.



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