Sending the UAV’s to Sea
Aircraft on Surface Ships
The history of aircraft launched from the sea has its beginnings in the primitive wooden flight decks attached to conventional gun armed cruisers and battleships early in the air power age. Later catapult seaplanes graced the decks of gun ships for “spotting” purposes, enhancing the capabilities of naval artillery at the extreme range limits.
With the advent of adequate numbers of aircraft carriers during World War 2, the catapult planes were gradually phased out in US Navy service. Aircraft didn’t return to the smaller ships until naval shipbuilders began designing helicopter equipped naval escorts in the 1960s, specifically to chase the newer deep diving and stealthy nuclear submariners then entering service.
Another turning point in the history of naval aircraft at sea occurred during the First Gulf War in 1991. Two of the world’s last existing battleships used Pioneer aerial drones to accurately site their huge 16 inch batteries against Iraqi coastal targets. The naval aircraft, while in a different guise, had come full circle, returning to its roots!
Navy Lags Behind
Amazingly since 1991, the USN has failed to take full advantage of such small but increasingly effective technology at sea. Certainly there has yet to appear a clear doctrine for the use of UAVs from Navy warships. Taking the lead instead, the US Army and Air Force have deployed and refined their use in the recent Middle East land wars. UAVs of various types, shapes, and capabilities are used on a regular basis for reconnaissance, close air support, and something reminiscent of strategic bombing against Al Qaeda and Taliban enclaves in the mountains of Pakistan.
The navy has tentative plans for the launching of very long range UCAS drones from its aircraft carriers at some future point. While such a strategy might enhance the survivability of the supercarrier, allowing it to operate further from shore compared to current manned naval aircraft in service, such plans fail to take advantage of less costly short range planes used to good effect by the Army and Air Force. The unmatched persistence, the proving lethality, endurance, and stealth of such craft in warfare cannot be exaggerated.
UAVs as the US MQ-9 Reaper or the MQ-8 Fire Scout would require launching close to shore to be of much use in a land campaign. In such mine and missile infested waters at the littorals big warships would be at a disadvantage, but the shallow seas are the perfect domain of the 1000 ton corvette.
Modern corvette warships come in various types, from high-end missile corvettes to low end patrol ships idea for fighting pirates and smugglers. For the deployment of naval UAVs we would add a third category, the aviation corvette.
The aviation corvette would carry 2-3 UAVs, but no more than 5. These would be launched by catapult or rocket assist, retrieved by netting as the Iowa battleships off Iraq in 1991. A “through-deck” ship with a full flight deck would take advantaged of a hook landing. The drones would be equipped with weapons proved in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as JDAM and Hellfire missiles. Armament for the corvette should only be basic point defensive guns and missiles, so as to focus precious space on the aircraft.
In wartime, several aviation corvettes could cruise off a coast supporting operations several hundred miles inland. Unlike a Tomahawk missile, the UAVs could return again and again, limited only by combat losses or the depletion of ammo.
Against an aggressor, the small ship would pose less a target, and less a loss compared to a supercarrier in this role. Save perhaps in the initial stages of a conflict, she would be an affordable alternative to a large-deck aircraft carrier.
That last statement is a profound one in a Navy with bureaucracies jealous of traditional warships and their assigned missions. If she is ever to see the light of day, the aviation corvette would have to endure enormous criticism on the limits of smaller vessels, from air-minded admirals who might see her as a threat to funding of Big Ships. An even greater wrong would be not to take advantage of a leap in technology which has proven so effective in modern war. The focus then should not be on the limits of a small hull, but on the enhanced qualities of her parasite UAVs.