Sending UCAS to Sea: A Superior Carrier through the Unmanned Combat Air System

Last updated January 01, 2008

This project, launched in 2008, considers the key characteristics, capabilities, and future role in carrier fleet operations of the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) now under development. The strike-fighter-sized UCAS aircraft is envisioned as a sea-based, ultra-stealthy, “first day of the war” force multiplier for missions in high threat environments that will provide aircraft carriers with vital leap-ahead combat capability and survivability, particularly in the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and long-range strike realms. In addition, the N-UCAS system will bring to the carrier air fleet an airframe of enormous versatility, and one that would complement and enhance the overall performance of manned systems in the emerging security environment. With UCAS endurance levels, nominally judged to be in the range of fifty—but possibly as many as one hundred—hours of orbit time with aerial refueling, and at a ground speed of 450 knots, for example, the sea service could perform dramatically longer air combat missions covering from twenty-two thousand to over forty-four thousand nautical miles. The study provides an in-depth assessment of such factors as the system’s greatly extended range and persistence, advanced stealth, electronic attack capability, novel air-refueling tanker role, and missile intercept, strike, and ISR features.

The project further examines the value and utility of the UCAS platform across a range of critical mission areas, analyzing the system’s role in current and potential operational missions, such as close air support, persistent ISR and targeting, long-range precision strike, information operations, communications relay, and support for distributed operations by the U.S. Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces, among others. The study presents as well a detailed assessment of the costs associated with developing the N-UCAS aircraft and the significant savings, particularly in the operations and support (O&S), force-package, and life-cycle cost (LCC) realms, that are likely to be achieved through the system’s deployment. The report offers specific recommendations for deploying N-UCAS in the most advantageous and cost-effective way that would allow the U.S. Navy to sustain, modernize, and maximize the combat power and coverage of large-deck carrier air wings at significantly lower costs. Although the system is expected to join the fleet by about 2025, a less-than-full capacity, combat-capable prototype version with nearer-term ISR and strike capabilities could be made available as early as the 2018–20 timeframe, if a decision to do so was made by the Navy (and additional funding provided) right after the shipboard demonstration of the N-UCAS that is planned for 2013. Such a prototype platform would certainly be of value to the counter-terrorist and irregular warfare campaigns the United States is now engaged in, while offering some degree of relief from the anti-access strategies now being developed by China, Iran, and in the not-too-distant future, other regional powers.

Based on this analysis, an interim report produced as part of the study, and soon to be posted on the IFPA website, asserts that N-UCAS is an essential and economical component of the future carrier air fleet. The report concludes that the system, with its potential to incorporate multi-role, low-observable, high-endurance, long-range, and air-refueling characteristics, will be essential to the U.S. Navy’s ability to conduct innovative air operations across the spectrum of modern warfare and against traditional and new threats.