Naval Air: It's the 1930s All Over Again


May 15, 2007: American Navy commanders are coming to believe that they will have to replace many of the manned aircraft on carriers, with UAVs, if carriers are to survive in combat a decade from now. That's because potential enemies will have access to UAV technology, and better missiles as well. Without the advantages of UAVs (greater endurance, stealth and lower cost), aircraft carriers won't be able to defend themselves well enough to prevail. These are the same kinds of calculations that drove naval planners in the 1930s, to abandon dependence on battleships, and plan for heavy use of aircraft carriers.

Carrier based UAVs are no fantasy. Work on flight control software for carrier operations is well underway. Combat UAVs (UCAVs) weight about 20 percent less than manned aircraft, and cost 20-30 percent less. They use less fuel as well, and can stay in the air much longer, patrolling the skies around the carrier, ready to defend against cruise missiles.

While the navy would prefer to design and build the first generation UCAVs (Unmanned Cobat Aerial Vehicles) for use on existing carriers, these smaller and cheaper aircraft go together well with smaller and cheaper carriers. That's because UCAVs mean you can get more aircraft on a carrier, and that creates a traffic jam type situation. Moreover, the widespread use of smart bombs means you need fewer bombers over the target. A 50-60,000 ton carrier, with three dozen F-35Bs, UCAVs, UAVs and support aircraft, can be as effective as a Nimitz with 70 F-18s and support aircraft. The navy is constantly fighting off suggestions from pundits and politicians to consider smaller (and cheaper) carriers. But there are economies of scale to consider, and the navy believes it can put a lot more combat power into one 100,000 ton Nimitz, than it can get from two 50,000 ton "UAV Carriers."


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