In apparent response to Defense Secretary Robert Gates's complaint that the Air Force isn't providing Central Command with enough unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the Navy is working on a developmental version of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) that it's calling the Naval Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS). What makes N-UCAS different and far more special than J-UCAS is that N-UCAS can operate from aircraft carriers, which the Navy has and the Air Force doesn't.
There's no special reason that any version of the UCAS needs to operate from an aircraft carrier, but the land based J-UCAS was cancelled and there's money in the pipeline to develop N-UCAS; so it's damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!
Christian Lowe of Military.com makes N-UCAS sound way cool:
Imagine a Navy strike plane launching off the catapult as its carrier begins steaming out of its San Diego naval base. The jet refuels over Hawaii, then again over Guam; it gets updated targeting data from its mother ship 6,000 miles away and launches its strike on an enemy nuclear missile silo in East Asia — all in one sortie.That's "just half" of what the N-UCAS could do, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), a prestigious Washington D.C. defense think tank. “Because of its great range, persistence, and stealth, [N-UCAS] would be able to perform missions beyond the capabilities of manned aircraft, and enable US aircraft carriers to perform both their traditional missions better and to undertake completely new missions,” say CSBA's Tom Ehrhard and Bob Work in their June 18 report “Range, Persistence, Stealth and Networking: The Case for a Carrier-Based Unmanned Combat Air System.”
The problem with all N-UCAS's beautiful ugliness is that any airplane that can fly 6,000 miles from an aircraft carrier beginning to steam out of its naval base in San Diego can just as easily take off from the naval base in San Diego, which also happens to be a naval air station. If the jet can fly 6,000 miles refueled it can fly 12,000 miles refueled, which means it doesn't have to take off from San Diego. It can take off from Whitman Air Force Base in Missouri, where we already have bombers that can fly that far called B-2 Spirits that we paid about $2 billion apiece for and that haven't given us much return on investment yet other than crash in Guam on a routine flight. Plus, any jet bomber that can get updated targeting data from a mother ship half a world away can get the data directly from wherever the mother ship got its.
It seems baffling that a respected defense think tank like CSBA, what with all its smart people and resources, couldn't figure that out how dumb an idea N-UCAS is, until you consider that CSBA wasn't getting paid to analyze why the N-UCAS is a dumb idea. It's the same kind of deal with Northrop Grumman, the defense company that heads the N-UCAS demonstrator program which the Navy has continued to fund.
Northrop Grumman is also the world's only manufacturer of catapult aircraft carriers like the current Nimitz class, and any future class of carriers will be developed and manufactured by Northrop Grumman. If, eventually, someone starts getting the bright idea that the Navy doesn't need both N-UCAS and aircraft carriers, Northrop Grumman will drop N-UCAS like a radioactive potato. For now, though, N-UCAS is a moneymaker, so nobody at Northrop Grumman's going to look up its skirt.
“It is difficult to imagine that the program would be [cancelled or delayed] because it represents a great success story for Navy acquisition," an unnamed Northrop Grumman official told Lowe, "and more than $1 billion has been invested in this program." As of June 2007, the DoD planned to invest $1.8 billion in a multi-year demonstrator project. In August 2007 the Navy announced the X-47B as the winner of the UCAS demonstrator (UCAS-D) competition. The vehicle's first flight was tentatively scheduled for late 2008.
So $1 billion into the N-UCAS/UCAS-D project, its most tangible product is the 260-page report that CSBA wrote about it.
Piled Higher and Deeper
The CSBA report regurgitates the "four key national security challenges of the 21st century" identified in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review:
…defending the homeland in depth; fighting the Long War against radical extremists and defeating terrorist networks; preventing state and non-state actors from acquiring or using weapons of mass destruction; and hedging against the rise of a power or powers capable of competing with the United States militarily.Here's what all that militaristic gibberish means in real people talk:
"Defending the homeland in depth" is fighting vaguely rationalized wars halfway across the world that have nothing to do with defending America and seldom if ever advance America's national interests.
"Fighting the Long War against radical extremists" is sustaining a constant state of low-level conflict against Islamofabulism or some other suitable amorphous enemy for a virtual eternity.
Preventing other actors from acquiring weapons of mass destruction mainly involves accusing those actors of having them when they don't (Iraq, Iran) and kissing up to them when they do (Korea).
Hedging against the rise of a peer military competitor involves spending a lot of money to equip ourselves for wars we'll never fight against adversaries who will never exist.
Facing these challenges, the CSBA report states, "will likely require future carrier task forces to stand off and fight from far greater distances than in the past," but as we've already illustrated, by the time the carrier is standing off yards from its pier, the carrier is no longer needed. Even if it were, standoff capability isn't necessary against terrorists--at least not the kind that extends from California to Kabul--so all the inference about needing N-UCAS to fight extremists is bull pluck.
That leaves us with "a rising China" as the N-UCAS's main justification. In a fight for the Taiwan, the CSBA report argues, the Chinese will focus on sinking U.S. carriers before they can get close enough for their aircraft to strike in the Taiwan Strait, hence the need for standoff range, but the carrier vs. naval base solution applies; the Chinese can't sink Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego.
Lest you wonder how it is that CSBA can get away making big bucks for producing nonsense like the N-UCAS report, be informed that CSBA's president is national security guru Andrew Krepinevich. In September 2005, Dr. Krepinevich wrote the celebrated article in Foreign Affairs modestly titled "How to Win in Iraq." Dr. Krepinevich's "new approach" to win would take "a decade or longer" to succeed but was, he said, far superior to "stay the course" although he didn't actually describe how his new approach could achieve a better result than stay the course or whether it could achieve it any sooner. To put a fine point to it, Dr. Krepinevich's way to win in Iraq was every bit as exquisite a piece of humbug as the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review was and the N-UCAS/UCAS-D is.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword . Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Also catch Russ Wellen's interview with Jeff at the The Huffington Post and Scholars and Rogues.