A panel of experts gave a tentative thumbs up to the Navy’s new plan to develop a carrier-based unmanned tanker aircraft, but told a House panel on Feb. 11 that eventually the service needs to field the deep-penetrating strike and reconnaissance asset it planned to under the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program.

The Navy's X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator (UCAS) designed for carrier operations and the precursor to UCLASS. Photo: U.S. Navy
The Navy’s X-47B unmanned aircraft demonstrator (UCAS) designed for carrier operations and the precursor to UCLASS. Photo: U.S. Navy

The Navy in the 2017 budget request announced it would replace the UCLASS program with an effort called the Carrier-Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS), a more modest drone that would conduct aerial refueling but could also include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and light strike capabilities.

Over the past decade, the service has debated what the role of its first carrier-based drone should be, and the transition from UCLASS to CBARS could ignite yet another fight with Congress over the future of the program. When the UCLASS program shifted to prioritize ISR over the strike mission, lawmakers tried to push the Navy back toward developing an unmanned aircraft that could attack targets in a highly-contested environment.

Converting the UCLASS program into a less ambitious unmanned tanker could be a good move for the Navy if it allows the service to experiment with unmanned systems and gives it more time to mature unmanned technologies, said Michael Horowitz, associate Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania.

“It won’t be a good news story if, rather than being a budget to the future of combat aircraft, the purchase of an unmanned tanker represents a shift away from thinking about uninhabited systems for carrier based deep strike missions,” he said during a House Armed Services Committee seapower and projection forces subcommittee hearing.

The other witnesses who testified at the HASC hearing—Seth Cropsey, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower, and Robert Rubel, professor emeritus Naval War College—agreed that CBARS could play a critical role that would free up manned tactical aircraft for missions that need a pilot in the seat of the aircraft.

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could greatly improve the carrier airwing by filling critical gaps in tanking, ISR and strike capability, Cropsey said. In the immediate future, an unmanned aerial refueling aircraft is a natural fit for the carrier deck, as such technology is mature and would greatly extend the range of tactical aircraft.

“Refraining from using UCLASS variants as strike platforms in the near future ensures that Navy is not putting unproven technology into a contested combat environment,” he said in his written statement. “Instead, it would be maximizing the tools currently at its disposal, giving the service breathing room to continue experimenting with the development of different types of unmanned system.”

The Navy could benefit by further developing existing UAS concepts—like General Atomics’ Sea Avenger system, an unmanned strike aircraft with a long loiter time—or by putting smaller drones on other surface ships like destroyers and cruisers to increase the ISR coverage of the carrier group, he said.

Eventually, though, the service should develop and field a stealthy, unmanned ISR and strike asset, Cropsey said. “The advantages of using an unmanned system in a contested environment cannot be overstated. The potential decrease in human cost is coupled with the ability of an unmanned system to perform maneuvers that a human pilot cannot, such as tight turns and high-speed vertical strikes.

The Navy should pursue a family of at least three specialized unmanned aircraft: a high-endurance, high altitude drone for line of sight relay; a stealthy, strike fighter-like UAS; and a support platform for aerial refueling, anti-submarine warfare and other support duties, Rubel said.

Horowitz advised HASC to continue putting pressure on the Defense Department to move unmanned carrier aviation forward. Fielding a cutting-edge UAS could be a challenge if programs are stymied by Pentagon’s slow procurement process, he said.

“There is good evidence to suggest that the senior leadership of the Pentagon gets it,” he said, citing Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work’s work on the Third Offset Strategy and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent talk about swarming micro-drones. However, those priorities could change with a new administration, he said.

The service included a $89 million request for CBARS funding in the 2017 budget.