Drone Warfare Version 2.0: Great Power Edition
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Drone Warfare Version 2.0: Great Power Edition


The first decade of drone and unmanned warfare has been the exclusive domain of nation states like the U.S. and Israel using armed drones to target leaders of non-state actors like al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Hamas.

This type of drone warfare will almost certainly continue into the future, albeit at a reduced pace in the case of the U.S. targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Other nation states may decide to make similar use of drones, if reports that China considered using drones to target an international drug trader are any indication.

Meanwhile, a second generation of drone warfare is taking shape: one in which countries employ unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) against other nation states.

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As the world's military superpower, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. is taking the lead in this endeavor. In May of this year, the U.S. garnered some headlines when it launched the X-47B drone from the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia. Many more heads were turned in July, when the X-47B drone became the first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to make a landing on the same aircraft carrier.

Last week a X-47B drone marked the 100th flight in the U.S. Navy’s Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program, which is geared toward maturing the capability to operate combat UAVs from aircraft carriers.

A press release announcing the 100th flight stated: “The Navy UCAS program successfully completed all objectives for the carrier demonstration phase with the X-47B.” It went on to note: “The program is currently planning for continued carrier integration demonstrations and has also begun surrogate Learjet testing of the autonomous aerial refueling (AAR) capability.” Earlier this month, the Navy announced key successes in this latter, refueling objective.

This followed the Navy’s announcement in August that the two prototype X-47Bs would not be retired to museums as planned, but instead would continue to be utilized for the purpose of, among other things, “developing unmanned aircraft carrier fleet concept of operations.”

Also in August, the U.S. Naval Air System Command (NAVAIR), which is overseeing the efforts to develop a carrier-based UAV fleet, announced that it had awarded US$15 million Preliminary Design Review (PDR) contracts to four defense companies for the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, which is designed to provide the U.S. Navy with its first deployed carrier-based unmanned air system.

As NAVAIR explained in a press release announcing the contracts, the carrier-based drone “will provide persistent, unmanned, semi-autonomous, carrier-based Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting (ISR &T) with precision strike capability to support 24/7 carrier operational coverage.”

According to Defense News, the carrier-based UAVs will initially have a strike capability of around 2,000 km. This hints at a key purpose of the drones; namely, to allow the U.S. to continue to strike China with sea-based aircraft while keeping America’s aircraft carriers outside the range of the PLA’s DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). In other words, the sea-based drones will be a key component of America’s efforts to counter adversaries’ anti access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies.   

The U.S. is also putting together the larger infrastructure to execute this strategy. For example, in July Rear Adm. Thomas J. Moore, the Navy’s Program Executive Officer for Aircraft Carriers, confirmed that the Ford-class aircraft carriers, the next-generation U.S. carriers, are being built with the capabilities to launch large fleets of UAVs off them.

As Moore explained of the Ford Class: “The flight deck has been designed to be bigger and have a higher sortie generation rate. The ship itself is built with three-times the electrical generating capacity than the Nimitz {Ford predecessor} class has – so it is not hard to envision that we are going to be flying unmanned aircraft off that ship.”

One crucial difference between using drones against terrorists in areas where the air force enjoys air superiority, and in using them against peer-competitors in contested air space, is that the vulnerability of the drones to air defense systems becomes a key concern in the latter environment. Thus, whereas U.S. drones can loiter over Pakistani airspace for days trying to pinpoint the location of al-Qaeda operatives, they will enjoy no such luxury in trying to eliminate China’s land-based missile systems.

As such, the carrier-based combat drones that come out of the UCLASS will be unlikely to conduct their own surveillance in many of the missions in which they were operate. For that, the U.S. is developing different UAVs. As Foreign Policy reported last month, the U.S. Navy envisions “swarms of tiny drones infiltrating heavily defended skies at will.”

Summarizing a U.S. Air Force official, the report noted that “these bug-like surveillance bots will be particularly useful in the Pacific…. Because that represents the toughest challenge for American spyplanes: snooping on say, a China equipped with increasingly advanced air defenses.” Presumably, these nano-drones will collect intelligence on targets for the UCLASS drones.

The U.S. is developing another unmanned system to counter China’s A2/AD strategy. Earlier this month, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) solicited bids from defense companies for its Hydra program, which will “develop and demonstrate an unmanned undersea system, providing a novel delivery mechanism for insertion of unmanned air and underwater vehicles into operational environments.” News reports suggest that submarines will also be launched from the Hydra system. This would give the U.S. the ability to launch carrier-based aircraft from devices that would be impervious to China’s ASBMs.

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