Could unmanned vehicles be just the help that a thinly stretched carrier force needs?

April 29, 2014
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 29 April 2014. It's difficult to gauge the importance of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. When an international crisis flares up, it's usually the carrier that is first on scene to handle a military confrontation or disaster relief.
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 29 April 2014. It's difficult to gauge the importance of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. When an international crisis flares up, it's usually the carrier that is first on scene to handle a military confrontation or disaster relief.

A Nimitz-class carrier weighs 100,000 tons, is three and a half football fields long, and has a crew of 5,000. It can deploy more than 30 jet fighter-bombers, as well as specialty aircraft for electronic warfare, surveillance, anti-submarine warfare, and cargo replenishment.

The carrier is more than a symbol of modern U.S. military power. It's what the cavalry was on the Plains in the 19th century; when it arrives, you know the Americans are here.

It's no secret, however, that American aircraft carrier power is stretched thinly in this era of shrinking U.S. military budgets. Not too many people, though, have an idea just how thin that carrier power is on a day-to-day basis.

Related: Raytheon and DARPA consider deploying unmanned air and marine vehicles from fighter aircraft

Take today, for example, 29 April 2014. The Navy has 10 active-duty carriers. That sounds like a lot, but what are they doing today? Of these 10 carriers, sources say, two are at sea. The USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) reportedly is operating in the North Arabian Sea, and the other, the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) is in the Eastern Pacific conducting flight-deck certifications.

One, the USS George Washington (CVN 73) is forward-deployed dockside in Yokosuka, Japan, and would be available for duty at sea on short notice.

Four carriers are docked at their home ports between deployments. The USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) and USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) are in San Diego, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) are in Norfolk, Va.

Of the Navy's 10 carriers, three are laid-up for long-term repairs and upgrades and are not immediately available for duty. The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) is drydocked at Portsmouth, Va. The John C. Stennis (CVN-74) is drydocked in Bremerton, Wash., and the Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) is getting new atomic fuel in Newport News, Va.

Related: Unmanned aircraft carrier that travels beneath the waves may be in the Navy's future

So of those 10 aircraft carriers, just two are at sea today, and just two are located anywhere near potential political and military hot spots. Ten carriers doesn't sound like so many, now, does it? Moreover, this drives home just how important those forward-deployed carriers are. Need an air strike right now? Of those 10 carriers, there's just one that could respond.

It's a big world for that one aircraft carrier. It stands to reason that this carrier could use some help -- particularly when it comes to persistent-surveillance capability in the air, on the surface, and under water, and it just so happens that the scientists at DARPA have something in mind.

They want to equip the F/A-18 Hornet jet fighter-bombers on that carrier's flight deck to deploy unmanned surveillance aircraft and submersibles quickly and at long ranges.

Need an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) to keep watch in the Persian Gulf TODAY? With this kind of capability, that carrier on station in the North Arabian Sea in the future might be the only way to do it.

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Here's what DARPA is thinking about. The Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet has the ability to carry extra fuel in as many as five external fuel tanks for extended-range and tanker missions. They carry those fuel tanks on hard points underneath the fuselage and wings.

DARPA wants to see if it's possible to use some of those hard points not to carry fuel tanks, but instead to carry UUVs and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for quick and long-range deployment where they're needed most.

This kind of capability, however, won't be ready anytime soon, and may never see the light of day. Still, DARPA is hiring experts at the Raytheon Co. Missile Systems segment in Tucson, Ariz., to study if it's possible to launch UUVs and UAVs from the carrier-based Super Hornet.

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Raytheon is the company to do this study. Not only does the company design many of the missiles that the Super Hornet carries, but the company's Integrated Defense Systems segment in Keyport, Wash., also produces the Navy's MK 54 MAKO Lightweight Torpedo, which can be launched from aircraft. Who better to help DARPA and the Navy with this challenge?

If it pans out, the ability to launch UUVs and UAVs from carrier-based strike aircraft could extend the carrier strike group's reach. And with a carrier force this thinly stretched, they can use all the help they can get.

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