In recent news, the United States Marine Corps (USMC) stated its intentions to develop a large, Group 5 – the largest class of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – vertical takeoff and landing drone (STOVL), with armed capabilities, that can be operated from amphibious ships. The new system, for the moment labeled “MUX,” has been designed as an offensive operating system, capable of attacking targets from varying distances but also capable of undertaking defensive roles such as protecting the V-22. It is also able to operate as an electronic warfare asset.
Though far from operational – the first test flight has been set for sometime in 2017 and an operational system will not be ready before 2026 if everything goes according to plan – the new system would significantly change the capabilities of the U.S. Navy (USN) and USMC. In short, it would represent a strident move for the U.S. armed forces, stepping away from the era of manned (strike) aircraft, and possibly from the era of aircraft carriers. If stationed on the America-class amphibious assault ships, the most recent class, this new generation of UAV could transform naval operations in the Asia Pacific. In a previous article, we wrote about how UAVs are ideal for a number of tasks in the Pacific, from offensive operations to hybrid warfare missions. The development of this system and its subsequent applications underscores this view.
To date, the USN has jumped halfheartedly onto the “unmanned” bandwagon, with supercarriers still being built, and manned aircraft still presiding at the center of naval operations. Yet, in the age in which adversaries – foremost China and North Korea – are developing missile capabilities, such as the DF-21/21A (CSS-5), that pose a serious risk to supercarriers, the use of smaller ships and operating unmanned systems represents a logical step forward for the United States and its armed forces. Developments of this nature mean a step toward a strategy more in-tune with China’s A2/AD strategy, enabling the navy to project its military power with heightened efficiently. The MUX would be capable of operating for extended periods, and if refueled by a successor of the X-47B, has the potential for allowing its amphibious ships to operate beyond the current, limited range – as is the case with the F-35B. It would enable, moreover, the USN to provide more rigorous patrols throughout the South and East China Seas, and illustrate its presence without the need to deploy an entire carrier battle group.
Not only will this system provide the United States with new modes of operation and extended reach, it lends the prospect of its allies working in closer cooperation, and even bringing some much-needed security partners into the picture. With China investing more into the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the United States could, and does, cooperate with its partners in increasingly interconnected modes. In this regard, Japan has a major role to play. Operating Izumo-class helicopter destroyers, Japan would able to transform its carrier fleet into a more robust unmanned fleet, able to operate an array of UAVs at the same time. This would significantly improve Japan’s aerial capabilities, allowing it to operate beyond traditional security environment currently limited as a result of the use manned planes based on Japanese home territory. It would also mean that it could reduce the burden for U.S. naval operations, freeing up much needed resources for major military actors like the United States.
Slated as the impossible, the U.S. ship-launched combat drone signifies the United States’ renewed commitment to the unmanned path, through both development and application of the newest and most advanced military technology. Seen as a massive stretch in military-technology imagination, there is no guarantee that this latest military endeavor can be executed smoothly and without incident; initial trials are still months away.
Still, Group 5 development serves as a continuation in naval and aircraft carrier development. Since their inception aircraft carriers have continued to grow in size. However, other much smaller naval vessels, able to carry both small and large drones capable of striking from even further distances, might soon reflect their military reach.
Tobias Burgers is a doctoral candidate at the Ott-Suhr-Institute (Free University of Berlin) where he researches the rise and use of cyber and robotic systems in security relations, and the future of military conflict.
Scott N. Romaniuk is a Ph.D. candidate in International Studies (University of Trento). His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.