Unmanned bombers at sea? Navy still years away from deploying attack drones aboard aircraft carriers.

Author:Jean, Grace

Given the Navy's checkered history of flying drones aboard ships, it's not surprising that its first pursuit of an unmanned aircraft geared for carrier operations has progressed cautiously and even with a hint of trepidation. While the sea service remains tight-lipped about how such an autonomous system might be employed in the future, analysts say it has the potential to alter naval warfare and are calling for an accelerated demonstration of its capabilities.

"The sooner you can demonstrate this and convince the carrier aviation community that 'hey, this will work,' then we think the attractiveness of the system will be just too irresistible," says Robert Work, naval analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

About the size of a fighter jet, the unmanned combat air system, or UCAS, is envisioned as a stealthy, long-range fixed-wing aircraft similar in design to a B-2 bomber. Navy officials have hinted that the UCAS might serve as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system that could support manned aircraft aboard a carrier in the 2020s.

"But we believe it could be so much more," Work says during a CSBA briefing on Capitol Hill.

The Navy sees the UCAS in the vein of the EA-18G Growler and the E-2B Hawkeye--as a specialized support plane flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, says Work. Once naval aviators are convinced that UCAS can operate safely on a carrier, he believes the Navy will want to add long-range strike capabilities to its surveillance function.

For example, UCAS could be loaded with advanced medium range air-to-air missiles and fly in a persistent orbit to hit targets. It could suppress enemy defenses, hunt down moving targets, and conduct close air support and interdiction operations.

"This is more flexible than an ISR system," says Work, who adds that he's not suggesting the UCAS will replace manned aircraft, but rather complement them.

The Navy last month awarded Northrop Grumman a $635.8 million contract to study concepts for carrier-based unmanned aerial systems operations during the next six years. The Los Angeles-based company plans to demonstrate that its X-47B, a tailless autonomous air vehicle, can operate safely aboard a carrier in catapult launches and landings, and fly in operations in the ship's airspace.

"The purpose of the UCAS contract is to demonstrate critical carrier suitability technologies of an air vehicle in a relevant environment," says Lt...

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