After a decade of steady expansion, the Chinese military has made significant strides toward limiting the United States’ ability to deploy its own armed forces in the western Pacific. A combination of new submarines, long-range anti-ship missiles and heavily-armed jet fighters underpins what the Pentagon calls Beijing's ‘anti-access, area-denial’ strategy, aimed at keeping the warships of the US Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, out of the South China Sea.
Successful area-denial would grant Beijing greater leeway in shaping the politics and markets of East Asia—and could even facilitate an armed attack on Taiwan, though this seems increasingly unlikely as relations between the two continue to warm.
Washington is taking this challenge seriously. The US Navy and Air Force are both developing robotic aircraft that could help erase China's recent military gains.
Among the US armed forces, the Navy has lost the most ground in the Pacific. That trend has its roots in the mid-1990s, when the sailing branch retired its Grumman-built A-6 Intruder carrier strike planes, whose 1,000-mile range allowed the Seventh Fleet to hit land and sea targets well beyond the range of enemy defences. Today’s F/A-18 strike fighters have barely half the range.
‘Reversing the erosion of the Navy’s strike advantage will require investments in a new generation of capabilities to increase the range, persistence and survivability of carrier aircraft,’ Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C. think tank, posited in a September report. ‘Without such investments, US aircraft carriers will be locked into a concept of operations that is dependent on relatively benign, permissive operating conditions.’
The stealthy F-35C manned fighter, slated to enter service in around five years, won’t significantly improve upon the F-18’s range. But a robotic fighter, with no requirement to support a human operator on-board, could do so. ‘Carrier-based unmanned aircraft systems have tremendous potential, especially in increasing the range and persistence of our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, as well as our ability to strike targets quickly,’ Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, commander of the US 7th Fleet, told the Associated Press last week.
The Navy has two programmes underway aimed at fielding a strike drone before the end of the decade. The Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration, a roughly $1.2-billion effort led by Northrop Grumman, is currently testing a pair of flying-wing-shaped X-47 drones from land bases, and should send those aircraft to an aircraft carrier at sea no later than 2013.
The Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Strike and Surveillance competition will build upon the UCAS-D test findings and pick an operational attack drone from a field of (so far) three: a version of the X-47, Boeing’s similar but slimmer X-45 and the “Sea Avenger” from General Atomics, maker of the Air Force's Predator and Reaper drones.
Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead said he wants the UCLASS robot in operation before 2018. ‘We've got to get that capability out there because I think it can make a huge difference,’ Roughead said in August.
The Air Force already possesses a small number of aircraft capable of penetrating Chinese defenses at long range. With aerial refueling, the 20 B-2 stealth bombers can strike targets anywhere in the world from their main base in Missouri, or from their forward operating location on Guam.
To expand this strike capacity, the Air Force last year launched a programme to buy 80-100 new stealth bombers. These could operate in conjunction with a new robotic strike plane that might fly ahead of the bomber, destroying air defences or spotting targets.
The X-47 could compete for that requirement, but the X-45 is the more likely candidate, as one former Boeing engineer explained. The X-47 is optimized for the rough life at sea, so it’s built thick, tough and simple. The X-45 is slimmer, more delicate and more sophisticated. That makes it an inferior carrier plane, but with better ‘low-observable’ characteristics—a.k.a., stealth—than the X-47. ‘The Navy doesn't much care about LO compared to the Air Force,’ the engineer said. ‘In part because it’s going to be really hard to maintain it in a carrier environment.’
With its smaller size, the X-45 will be even stealthier than the Air Force's new F-35A manned fighter, the engineer continued. ‘Compare the shapes and profiles (of the F-35 and the X-45). Who do you think is going to have the higher probably of being killed?’
The result, if all these programmes proceed at their current pace, could be new arsenal of robotic strike aircraft, operating from the 7th Fleet's aircraft carrier and the Air Force's Pacific bases, before the end of the decade. The pilotless strikers could include a tough carrier model for the Navy and a stealthier version for the Air Force—quite possibly the X-47 and X-45, respectively.
Together, the US drones could help reverse the steady expansion of so-called ‘denied’ territory on China's maritime border.