Home » Aviation » Pigeon Holes or Paradigm Shift: How the Navy Can Get the Most of its Unmanned Vehicles

Pigeon Holes or Paradigm Shift: How the Navy Can Get the Most of its Unmanned Vehicles


Proceedings, July 2012
The U.S. Navy must combine innovation with tested ideas to make the most of its unmanned aerial vehicles.

110930-N-JQ696-401The process of assimilating a new technology is a complex one for any organization. Besides facing the resistance of those who view it as a threat, the technology’s full potential often remains unrealized because of a failure of imagination. Instead it is forced, at least initially, into existing functions and slotted into established intellectual “pigeonholes.” Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been subjected to this sort of thinking. The U.S. Navy should consider them as more than mere unmanned versions of existing aircraft and take full advantage of this new tool.

In the original version of the film Star Wars , Luke Skywalker piloted an X-wing fighter with his trusty droid R2-D2 in the back. Single-seat aviators of the 1970s noted with some glee the allegorical reference to an automated naval flight officer. It appeared that the function of piloting was inherently human; system management was something a robot could handle. However, even at their current stage of development, the flight of unmanned aircraft is considerably more automated than, say, radio-controlled model airplanes, which indeed must be “flown.” UAVs such as the Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk are capable of autonomous takeoff, navigation, and landing. It is the pilot function that has been automated; the naval flight officer function still requires a human to make decisions.

This is the leading edge of a “paradigm shift”: pilotless aircraft operated by pilotless squadrons or perhaps by no squadrons at all. The shift may go further, possibly obviating the need for any kind of winged specialist. After all, the Navy has been operating a large fleet of highly lethal unmanned aircraft since the 1950s, controlled almost exclusively by surface warfare officers. These aircraft are called missiles.

As UAVs attain more and more autonomy, the nature of human oversight will change, being involved less with the physics of their functioning and more with the broader decisions of when to launch, how many, where to place them, and targeting. It is not clear that at this level of decision-making an aviation specialist is either necessary or desirable. This notion would appear to break some naval aviation rice bowls and would very likely find ready opposition in some circles. However, it is not difficult to imagine a Navy in which UAV squadrons are manned solely by maintenance personnel and the craft are controlled by naval general staff officers who inhabit a maritime operations center. This kind of arrangement could raise the odds that UAVs would be used efficiently and perhaps more creatively.

A serious question that will attend the use of increasingly autonomous, armed UAVs is where in the “kill chain” moral agency should exist in the form of human decision-making. Failures in the form of blue-on-blue or the inadvertent targeting of noncombatants have occurred with both manned and unmanned aircraft. It is not evident at this point how and where moral agency should be exerted with autonomous or semi-autonomous armed aircraft, but it seems clear that this question should not be hostage to traditional notions of who should control what. Naval cultural norms concerning centralization and delegation should be subordinate to the central issue of assuring effective moral agency in the kill chain, and our organizational paradigms will influence how effectively this question is answered.

The Navy’s allergy to written doctrine, or at least to adhering to it, is well known. But that does not mean the Navy has no doctrine. A tacit form that has been around for most of its history involves the roles assigned to different types of ships. Aircraft carriers, while extremely versatile, historically have been used in a limited set of doctrinal roles. When the USSLangley (CV-1) was commissioned, she was assigned to serve as “eyes of the Fleet.” Her aircraft would scout for the enemy and spot the shot of the battleships. Subsequently, as naval aircraft gained capability, the carrier assumed other functions: capital ship, nuclear-strike platform, geopolitical chess piece, and airfield at sea, to mention the most prominent ones. 1

Since the end of the Cold War, because of the lack of significant naval opposition, the aircraft carrier has been almost exclusively used as an airfield at sea. The Northrop-Grumman X-47B is a prototype UAV designed to operate from an aircraft carrier. In a sense, this craft is an unmanned version of an F/A-18 Hornet or F-35C Joint Strike Fighter. One would expect, therefore, that while the Fleet introduction of the X-47B would enhance the functioning of the carrier air wing, it would not change the doctrinal role of the carrier.

But what if we imagined a different role for the aircraft carrier? What might UAVs, with their doubling or tripling of range and endurance over manned aircraft, allow us to do with the CVN that cannot be done now? One possibility that comes to mind is a return to a version of the carrier’s original role, eyes of the Fleet. Because of technological advances such as the Chinese antiship ballistic missile, which presents an increasing threat to the carrier in China’s near seas, the U.S. Navy might elect to conduct a sea fight with its own new set of antiship missiles. These missiles, launched from submarines, aircraft, or surface ships, will need command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) support. If the Chinese succeed in shooting down our satellites and are thus able to disrupt our networks, we will have to reconstitute them locally. If we had a wing of long-range and endurance UAVs on a carrier, it could populate the battlespace with both ISR and line-of-sight communications relays for the battle-force network. While some of these services could be provided from land-based UAVs such as the Navy’s version of Global Hawk (broad-area maritime surveillance, or BAMS), the same logic that favors local carrier-based aircraft over long-range land-based bombers also favors carrier-based C4ISR UAVs. Aircraft-carrier proponents have long pointed out that if local land bases for tactical aircraft are not available, long-range operations from distant bases are not as effective as those from a nearby carrier. The advantages of local tactical air from a carrier include greater flexibility in changing missions and the ability to surge quickly in response to emergent conditions.

What other uses might the Navy find for UAVs? It has been said that if you want a new idea, read an old book. In this case the “old book” is a set of former naval concepts that never quite worked out because the technology of the day was insufficient. The application of UAVs, however, might give them new life.

Son of Akron and Macon The USS Akron (ZRS-4) and the Macon (ZRS-5) were two giant Navy dirigibles operating in the 1930s. Their distinguishing feature was the capability to launch and recover biplane fighters via a “sky hook.” The fighters were intended be used to extend the dirigible’s scouting horizon and for self-defense. Tragically, both airships were lost during storms, and the notion of an aerial aircraft carrier died with them.

UAVs may allow us to resurrect that concept, not with modern lighter-than-air mother ships but with C-130s and C-17s. These transports have rear ramps that can be lowered in flight and from which UAVs could be launched and recovered. Operating them from these aircraft opens up many opportunities for exploiting their capabilities. We could, for instance, deliver hordes of mini-UAVs that could not otherwise get to a desired area of operation. Large transport aircraft could recover larger unmanned vehicles that were launched from subs or other ships that could not recover them. The possibilities abound.

Son of Arapaho. The U.S. Army originally came up with the concept of embarking an aviation detachment, the ARH-70A Arapaho armed reconnaissance helicopter, on a container ship. The Navy subsequently considered the idea during the Cold War as a way of creating a convoy self-escort capability. The aviation-support capability would be in containers, and a helo/Harrier flight platform would be mounted on top. An Arapaho unit would presumably be able to provide some degree of protection against air raids and submarines. In the 1980s this idea did not gain traction, in part due to the limitations of technology.

Today, UAVs might make the concept viable. While we are unlikely to need convoy self-escort, we might consider a small anti-mine, anti-pirate, or anti-small-boat swarm UAV detachment. The very small on-scene personnel requirements would comport well with the limited berthing capabilities of merchants. If we containerized antiship missiles as one Russian company suggested, we would need the kind of on-board over-the-horizon targeting (OTH-T) capability that son of Arapaho could provide. The combination of containerized missiles and on-board OTH-T could turn any ship into a potential surface combatant and greatly complicate an enemy’s sea-denial and control problem. They could do it, and maybe we should too. There are probably dozens of other possibilities; son of Arapaho is simply a pump-priming idea.

Son of I-400. During World War II the Japanese devised a way to install individual floatplanes on a submarine. They constructed a tubular hangar on the boat’s deck and jammed three floatplanes with their wings removed inside it. The idea was that the sub could approach the West Coast undetected, surface, and the airplane could be quickly assembled and sent to bomb targets in the United States. The major limitation was that the sub could only carry three aircraft, so its potential operational and strategic effect was likely to be nil. The U.S. Navy, for its part, adopted a similar concept in the 1950s for carrying and launching the early nuclear-armed cruise missiles like the SSM-N-8 Regulus. Once Polaris SSBNs hit the fleet this idea was abandoned.

Today’s converted Ohio -class guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) are modern versions of the concept. Capable of carrying more than one hundred Tomahawk cruise missiles, they are a potent source of striking power. Combining UAVs with new kinds of missiles in the SSGN gives the concept a new twist. UAVs with a submerged-launch capability could provide a number of C4ISR, deception, and defensive services for the sub. The UAVs might be expendable or could, as mentioned earlier, be recovered in the air by a C-17. If the submarine itself could recover them, the SSGN begins to look a bit like a submersible CVN. One of the doctrinal roles of the CV in World War II was “cavalry”; doing hit-and-run raids on Japanese-held islands and even the home islands. In this their actions were very analogous to the way Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest used his horsemen. Today, a CVN is likely to be too visible to re-adopt that doctrinal role, but the SSGN could do it.

Son of Jeep Carrier. The Navy operated a large number of aircraft carriers during World War II, the majority of which were small light carriers or escort carriers. Those ships provided sea-based air power for functions such as amphibious-landing support and antisubmarine protection that the large carriers were too scarce and valuable to support. After the war their numbers quickly dwindled in favor of very large aircraft carriers. In the 1970s, the notion of a smaller carrier again resurfaced in the guise of a “sea-control ship.” That concept never got off the drawing board because of resource constraints and opposition in naval aviation ranks. Later, Vice Admiral Art Cebrowski, the oracle of network-centric warfare, again proposed a small carrier that could be built in numbers and operate in threatened littoral waters. This concept again foundered in the face of opposition. Could UAVs breathe new life into the idea of a small carrier?

The Navy currently operates a fleet of ten large-deck amphibious ships (LHAs or LHDs), from which the Marines have been operating helos and Harrier jump jets for decades. The F-35B short takeoff, vertical-landing jet will significantly improve the capabilities of the Marine air wing, but it will not turn the LHA into a kind of aircraft carrier, mostly because of limitations in range and payload, not to mention doctrinal constraints the Marines imposed. Short-takeoff technology, even abetted by a ski jump, will always limit range, endurance, and load-carrying capability barring unforeseen technical advancements. This is why U.S. carriers have catapults and arresting gear and why the Royal Navy has recently and wisely switched its proposed Queen Elizabeth -class aircraft carriers to a catapult and arresting-gear configuration. However, mounting catapults and arresting gear for manned aircraft on LHAs is unlikely either to be feasible or cost-effective.

UAVs could change this picture. Small-scale catapults on trailers exist for them. It is not hard to envision a scaled-up version being craned on board an LHA to operate a wing of vehicles that might be half the size and weight of a Predator or X-47B. These would likely have at least the range and endurance of an F/A-18. Recovery would have to be worked out, but regular arresting gear would not be needed. If such a wing were embarked, the LHA starts looking at least a little bit like a jeep carrier. The sky is the limit, so to speak, on the doctrinal roles that might be adopted by a UAV-operating LHA. It would appear that UAVs also change the nature of the debate over large versus small carriers.

Son of Bismarck Most everyone knows the story of the German battleship Bismarck . She was essentially the last of the surface raiders, her class having been done in by British aircraft-carrier and surface-fleet power. Her predecessors, the cruiser Admiral Graf Spee and SMS Emden , met similar fates, and the submarine inherited the mission of commerce raiding. Besides being a surface ship and easier to find than submarines, the problem was numbers; there were never more than one or two of them operating at a particular time. Moreover, although the Bismarck carried four Arado floatplanes, they were not used effectively, and none of the raiders received proper air support from land bases, so they operated virtually in the blind.

Perhaps the best surface combatant in the world today is the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke -class destroyer. Its combination of Aegis weapon system, SPY-1 radar, and 96 missile tubes make it highly flexible and lethal. The late block hulls support embarked helicopter detachments, and each of them can operate a small UAV called the ScanEagle. The Arleigh Burke s have been slotted into two doctrinal roles: high-value unit escort and ballistic-missile defense ship. However, if they embarked more capable UAVs that could provide greater C4ISR reach, and they were equipped with long-range antiship missiles, they could become a modern version of a surface raider. The Bismarck had to get within the visual horizon to attack her targets and knew not what lurked beyond, stalking her. An Arleigh Burke -class surface raider suffers no such limitation. She could reach out hundreds of miles. Such reach would allow her to maneuver in any number of ways to prevent the enemy from identifying and targeting her. The Navy has 61 of these ships and is building more, so it could literally flood a sea-fight problem with them. Their targets would most likely be enemy combatants, not merchants. Operating singly or perhaps in pairs, and in cooperation with submarines and other units, they would add enormous complexity to an enemy’s sea-denial or sea-control problem.

New kinds of missile, satellite, cyberspace, and robotic technologies, as well as emerging navies, are going to change the nature of naval warfare whether we like it or not. The Navy’s imperative is to imagine new ways to exploit these technologies that will give us major operational advantages over an enemy. We must accept that other countries, some potentially hostile, are developing or buying UAVs. Each of the ideas presented here could be turned around and used against us, so we had better consider the solutions to such threats—even as we develop them for our own use.

UAVs are changing things, and they will provide us with opportunities to use our ships in new ways. We must proceed by examination through war gaming and by subsequent fleet experimentation. To be most effective we must remove our blinders and envision new uses and new relationships.

1. Robert C. Rubel, “The Future of Aircraft Carriers,” Naval War College Review , (Newport, RI: Naval War College), Autumn 2011, 13-27. http://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/87bcd2ff-c7b6-4715-b2ed-05df6e416b3b/…

2. Norman Friedman, Unmanned Combat Air Systems (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010). 3. Jim Bencivinga, “Rigging U.S. Container Ships to Defend Themselves in Time of War,” Christian Science Monitor , 6 January 1981.http://www.csmonitor.com/1981/0106/010636.html

4. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N6dKCkv1fzs , and the UK Telegraph athttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/7632543/A-cruise…

5. “Cebrowski: Develop Small Aircraft Carriers from High-Speed Ships,” Inside the Navy , 9 August 2004, 1.http://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=451065

Captain Rubel served 30 years on active duty flying the A-7 and F/A-18, and commanding VFA-131. He is currently dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. He attended the Spanish Naval War College, the U.S. Naval War College, and has instructed at a variety of American and foreign war colleges.