Why the Navy would like 60% drones on its aircraft carriers
When it comes to outfitting 21st century aircraft carriers, the US Navy wants a mix of at least 60% unmanned aircraft. This goal was “outlined by several officials during updates to the Tailhook Association’s annual symposium in September,” Aviation Week reports, referring to the conference hosted by a fraternal order of naval aviators, the pilots who were currently flying and previously the type of work that the Navy intends to shift primarily to robots.
The Navy has made no secret of its intentions to move towards more unmanned aircraft flying on and off aircraft carriers. In March 2021, Vice Admiral James Kilby told the House Armed Services Committee that “we think we could get over 40% of the aircraft from an unmanned aerial wing and then move beyond that” .
Going from 40 percent to 60 percent is a substantial leap, though it’s part of the overall strategy for how the Navy intends to incorporate and expand the use of unmanned vehicles in the coming decades. In Sailing Plan 2022, the Navy’s longer-term procurement strategy document, the Navy said that by the 2040s it plans to field “aircraft for anti-submarine warfare.” marine and anti-surface aircraft, including helicopters and maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, all complemented by unmanned aviation systems” with a capability target of “approximately 900”.
For the Navy, much of its unmanned aviation plans depend on the continued success of the MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone. The Stingray’s mission is to take off from an aircraft carrier deck and travel with fighters like F/A-18 jets on their way to their mission. Next, the Stingray is supposed to fill the jets’ fuel tanks while they’re already in flight, extending the functional range of these fighters. This is a mission currently performed by specially equipped F/A-18s, but switching from refueling to a specialized unmanned aircraft would free up the crewed fighter for other missions.
In June 2021, a Stingray successfully transferred fuel from an external storage tank to an airborne fighter for the first time, and aircraft testing continues, with the Navy expecting drones to enter in service in 2026. While not as flashy as combat missions Navy drones may one day fly, tanker missions require mastering the ability to take off and land on aircraft carrier decks , as well as the ability of an unmanned vehicle to coordinate with human pilots in close contact during flight. If the airframe and its autonomous systems can accomplish this, then adapting the form to other missions, such as scouting or attack, may come in the future.
Adding unmanned aircraft has the potential to increase the raw number of flying machines fielded, as autonomous systems are not limited by the availability or capacity of human pilots. The unmanned aircraft can also be designed from the ground up without the need for human pilots, allowing designers to build airframes without having to include space not only for cockpits but also for control systems. pilot safety, such as ejection seats, oxygen and redundant engines.
By saving piloting labor by moving to autonomy and saving space on an aircraft carrier through a denser unmanned design, robotic crewmates could allow ships to put more flying machines in the skies, without needing to have a similar expansion in the number of pilots or aircraft carrier decks. .
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The Navy’s intent has parallels throughout the Department of Defense. In September, DARPA announced ANCILLARY, a program seeking a general-purpose drone capable of flying from rugged environments and ship decks, without the need for additional infrastructure. GAMBIT, a program by defense contractor General Atomics, is pitched to the Air Force as a way to develop four different drone models from a single basic design, providing cost savings and a versatility with shared rooms.
Beyond these speculative programs, the Air Force has been working to develop semi-autonomous drones that can take commands and fly in formation with human-piloted aircraft. This Loyal Wingmate program aims to increase the number of aircraft, and in turn sensors and weapons, that can be flown in formation, again without increasing the number of pilots needed. It also allows the Air Force to develop a rotating distribution of unmanned aircraft around existing crewed fighters, with faster production times and rapid deployment of new capabilities once they are developed.
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The Navy’s ultimate vision, suggested 40% unmanned and 60% necessary, is that new robotic aircraft perform well enough to justify their place in carrier storage, while being durable enough that they can take the greatest risk in any conflict. , sparing human pilots exposure to enemy anti-aircraft weapons. A downed pilot is a tragedy. A downed drone is just lost equipment and the ensuing paperwork.