Sunday, May 22, 2011

Drones for the Navy?

The use of drones in the war on terror has been so successful that the Navy is now developing aircraft carrier-based drones that could provide a crucial edge as it tries to counter China's military rise. Land-based drones are in wide use in the war in Afghanistan, but sea-based versions will take several more years to develop. Northrop Grumman conducted a first-ever test flight -- still on land -- earlier this year.

Officials have been very tightlipped about where the unmanned armed planes might be used, but a top Navy officer has told some reports that some would likely be deployed in Asia. "They will play an integral role in our future operations in this region," predicted Vice Adm. Scott Van Buskirk, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, which covers most of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

The drones could offset some of China's recent advances, notably its work on a "carrier-killer" missile. "Chinese military modernization is the major long-term threat that the U.S. must prepare for in the Asia-Pacific region, and robotic vehicles -- aerial and subsurface -- are increasingly critical to countering that potential threat," said Patrick Cronin, a senior analyst with the Washington-based Center for New American Security.

Analysts say that China is decades away from building a military as strong as America's, but it is developing air, naval and missile capabilities that could challenge U.S. supremacy in the Pacific -- and with it, America's ability to protect important shipping lanes and allies such as Japan and South Korea. Personally, I am not so sure they are that far away. Resent revelations about Chinese advances in military technology and the rapid expansion of their military, especially their naval capabilities, make me think thy are much closer than the analysis’s give them credit for.

China maintains it does not have offensive intentions and is only protecting its own interests. –Let’s see, where have I heard that before? Oh, I remember, Germany in the 1930’s. How did that work out again?

The shipping lanes are also vital to China's export-dependent economy. There are potential flash points, though, notably Taiwan and clusters of tiny islands that both China and other Asian nations claim as their territory. There have already been several clashes with Japan on this issue.

The U.S. Navy's pursuit of drones is a recognition of the need for new weapons and strategies to deal not only with China but a changing military landscape generally.

"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," Van Buskirk said at the 7th Fleet's headquarters in Yokosuka, Japan. His fleet boasts one carrier -- the USS George Washington -- along with about 60 other ships and 40,000 Sailors and Marines.

Experts say the drones could be used on any of the 11 U.S. carriers worldwide and are not being developed exclusively as a counterbalance to China. But China's reported progress in missile development makes the need for them more urgent.

The DF 21D "carrier killer" missile is designed for launch from land with enough accuracy to hit a moving aircraft carrier at a distance of more than 900 miles (1,500 kilometers). Though still unproven -- and some analysts say overrated -- no other country has such a weapon. Current Navy fighter jets can only operate about 500 nautical miles (900 kilometers) from a target, leaving a carrier within range of the Chinese missile.

Drones would have an unrefueled combat radius of 1,500 nautical miles (2,780 kilometers) and could remain airborne for 50 to 100 hours -- versus the 10-hour maximum for a pilot.

"Introducing a new aircraft that promises to let the strike group do its work from beyond the maximum effective firing range of the anti-ship ballistic missile -- or beyond its range entirely -- represents a considerable boost in defensive potential for the carrier strike group," said James Holmes of the U.S. Naval War College.

Some experts warn carrier-based drones are still untested and stress that Chinese advances have not rendered carriers obsolete. "Drones, if they work, are just the next tech leap. As long as there is a need for tactical aviation launched from the sea, carriers will be useful weapons of war," said Michael McDevitt, a former commandant of the National War College in Washington, D.C., and a retired rear admiral whose commands included an aircraft carrier battle group.

Some analysts also note that China may be reluctant to instigate any fighting that could interfere with its trade. Nan Li, an expert at the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, doubts China would try to attack a U.S. carrier. "I am a skeptic of such an interpretation of Chinese strategy," he said. "But I do think the X-47B may still be a useful preventive capability for worst-case scenarios."

My problem with such comments is simple. If you go back and look at analysis papers from the late 1930’s through early 1941, most respected thinkers were saying that an attack by Japan upon Hawaii or the West Coast of the United States was theoretically possible but was impracticable and unlikely for a number of reasons. Japan did not possess the technical knowledge or the firepower to pull it off and they would never expose their fleet to counter attack so far from supply and support. –So much for the analysts… There is a military treatise written about 2,600 years ago called The Art of War (which is still studied by military planners today). Written by Sun Tzu, is says a good general should attack where and when they enemy thinks you will not. Sun Tzu was a Chinese general, by the way.

The Air Force and Navy both sponsored a project to develop carrier-based drones in the early 2000s, but the Air Force pulled out in 2005, leaving the Navy to fund the research.

Adm. Gary Roughhead, chief of naval operations, said last summer that the current goal of getting a handful of unmanned bombers in action by 2018 is "too damn slow." "Seriously, we've got to have a sense of urgency about getting this stuff out there," he told a conference. "It could fundamentally change how we think of naval aviation." –Gee, I like that kind of thinking….

Live Long and Prosper.....

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