Past and Future of Aircraft Carriers

Over the past 20 years naval aviation in the United States has undergone a dramatic change in focus and capabilities, and not for the better. Its historical and traditional focus on long-range capabilities and the deep strike mission has been overtaken by a concentration on lower maintenance costs and higher aircraft sortie generation rates.

The rise of new powers, including China and its pursuit of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies and capabilities to include the carrier-killing 1,000 nautical mile (nm) range Dong Feng-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, now threatens to push the Navy back beyond the range of its carrier air wings.

Jerry Hendrix is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Defense Strategies and Assessments Program at the Center for a New American Security. A career naval flight officer, he retired from the Navy with the rank of captain in 2014.

He lays out the past and future of US Aircraft carriers in a 72 page document.

Today’s Carriers and their air wings, with their shrinking ability to project mass and power at great distance represent 25 years of actively forgetting critical historical lesson. History, like the enemy, does not forgive.

Recommended specs and mission for unmanned carrier based drones

If the Navy wanted to build on the lessons of naval aviation’s evolution in the post-World War II period and purchase a carrier-based unmanned combat aerial system (UCAS), such an aircraft could provide the long-range, deep strike capability necessary to keep the supercarrier relevant and in the fight, even in a mature anti-access/area-denial environment.
Such an aircraft would possess a wingspan of approximately 60–70 feet, a gross takeoff weight of 60,000–70,000 pounds, and an internal bomb load of 4,000–6,000 pounds.

It would also have an unrefueled combat radius of over 1,500 nm, a refueled mission endurance measured in days, and broadband, all-aspect RCS reduction. With a very low RCS across the threat radar spectrum, a carrier based UCAS could also provide difficult to counter, low power, stand-in jamming support, reducing the vulnerability of manned F-18s and
F-35s to enemy IADS.

These aircraft would bring a new critical characteristic to the carrier air wing that would both complement and strengthen the mass, range, payload capacity, and low observability characteristics identified in the past. The new characteristic would be persistence: the ability to remain present and on-station for days on end.

When combined with additional UCAS manufactured without stealth accruements serving as a mission tanker capable of providing over 25,000 pounds of give fuel to its counterparts within the air wing, the mission aircraft could remain airborne for up to 50 hours at a time during critical periods, landing only to change lubricating fluids. Persistence would allow these aircraft to maintain constant, unblinking surveillance and targeting of key geographic areas, enabling these aircraft to locate mobile platforms that move infrequently and yet quickly. It would also eliminate the need for constant transit to and from the carrier.

To be sure, such an aircraft would not be inexpensive. An unmanned combat air system for the carrier could cost upwards of $175 million to procure. It would, however, have two to three times the unrefueled combat radius of manned fighters, several times the mission endurance, and enhanced survivability.

Moreover, it is important to realize that while a $130 million Joint Strike Fighter might spend 80 percent of its life in the air pattern around the carrier maintaining the day and night carrier landing qualifications of its human pilot, the UCAS could be flown only when needed for combat operations and could be shifted from carrier to carrier as they deploy, allowing for a smaller buy of five or six squadrons’ (90–110 units) worth of aircraft to equip each operational carrier in the fleet with a squadron, rather than the 10 squadrons and training birds that are purchased for manned programs

SOURCE – Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation by Jerry Hendrix [Center for a New American Security]