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Carrier Alternative Weekly

January 7, 2010

Scan Eagle

Hope is Not a Shipbuilding Strategy

How much like the USN’s own future procurement program, which has been dubbed pure “fantasy” by Congress and naval strategists, is Britain ambitious plans to build her first large deck carrier wings since World War 2. More excellent commentary from Think Defence:

As soon as anyone questions the utility or cost of CVF and JCA it is as if that person has just bludgeoned to death three dozen baby seals, %&#* in the Queens slippers and suggested that Dijon mustard would be a tasty accompaniment to roast beef.

In an ideal world the Royal Navy would have 3, each with a large compliment of escorts and logistics vessels. The problem though, is we don’t live in an ideal world.

The grown ups in the Royal Navy have presided over its significant reduction whilst clinging to the promise of CVF, I assume the logic is to ‘get the boats in the water’ and everything else will follow, short term pain for long term gain. The thinking is there is no way any government will countenance the embarrassment of having a pair of large aircraft carriers with only a handful of aircraft or tiny numbers of escorts, so once they are launched the governments hand will be forced and funding will follow, either new money or at the expense of the other services.

 Hope is not a good strategy but seems the prevailing one.

In the USA, it is the same, with the generals and admirals fashioning grandiose building projects, which inevitably exceed cost expectations. Then they look for politicians or the media to save them, declaring the program “is too big to fail”, or that it costs more to cancel than to complete. So we are stuck with obsolete weapons useless for modern warfare, while the troops, airmen, and sailors are forced to fight current wars with weapons from another century, patched together decade after decade. But I do think the spigot for the defense wasters is being turned off.


The UAV Option

While the Navy still struggles with the problems of deploying last century manned naval air, the USAF have been revolutionizing the deployment of airpower from land with its fleet of easy to build and deploy UAVs. The latest will introduce an astonishingly powerful new sensor that allows fewer planes to do more, bringing further into question the need for giant decks. This is from Air Force Times and concerns the “Gorgon Stare”:

A wide-area airborne surveillance sensor called the Gorgon Stare is due to reach Afghanistan this spring, cutting the number of unmanned aircraft needed over the battlefield, according to the Air Force’s intelligence chief.

Gorgon Stare can photograph an eight-kilometer-wide circle from 12 angles. Current sensors on unmanned aerial vehicles broadcast a single, soda straw-type view.

With the introduction of the Gorgon Stare, the Air Force will soon be “swimming in sensors … and drowning in data,” according to Lt. Gen. David Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Increasing the number of unmanned aircraft orbits, round-the-clock combat air patrols flown by MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, has been a goal for two years. The aircraft broadcast full-motion video that ground commanders want — and need.

Gorgon Stare will be mounted on Reapers.

If such technology can be mounted on ship-launched aircraft such as Fire Scout, it could make redundant the need to deploy giant and very costly, also very visible carrier strikes group when one ship is all you need. In the future, every USN warship will be its own aircraft carrier, thanks to missiles and the impending deployment of UCAVs to sea.

The continued flexibility and economy of unmanned aerial vehicles can no longer be ignored by the Navy.


Time Runs Out for Ark Royal

The Royal Navy’s Invincible class light carriers, even after expensive refits, are just worn out.  Story from the UK Times:

The Ark Royal is performing violent evasive manoeuvres at almost 30 knots, as the incoming jet thunders past the bridge amid a clatter of outgoing anti-aircraft fire. As it does so there is a report of a fire on one of the four engines of Ark Royal.

In the midst of a vividly simulated wargame last month in the English Channel, complete with attacking aircraft and blank ammunition, this last piece of information meets with concern. It isn’t part of the game. The fire is real. Ark Royal is one of the two carriers that the Navy has in service, but for how much longer? The ship and its sister, Illustrious, are 30-year-old veterans and although the sprinkler system put the fire out, it was the third Ark Royal has suffered since a £12 million refit ended in September. The Government cut the first steel on Queen Elizabeth, the first of the two replacements, in July. Yet even at this stage the future of the twin-carrier project is not guaranteed because of the economic backdrop and the Navy is worried.


Every Ship an Aircraft Carrier

Just a proposal–Any reason small UAVs like ScanEagle can’t be launched from surface combatants to provide individual ships their own personal airborne-early warning today? Article from Montana’s Daily Inter Lake:

Originally designed to find schools of tuna for fishing boats, the aircraft can stay airborne for longer than 19 hours on one and a half gallons of gas and fly in light rain. ScanEagle has a range of 80 miles which can expand to 160 miles by a handoff to another operator.

“With our endurance, we blew away a lot of UAVs,” [Fallujah veteran Jim Marino] said.

 ScanEagle offers another advantage in requiring no runway. The 4-foot-long aircraft with a 10-foot wingspan launches from a pneumatic wedge catapult and uses a skyhook system to land.

“Once the aircraft is in the air, it’s on autopilot,” Marino said.

From the keyboard and joysticks, he can change speed and altitude and send the aircraft to any location with a click over the location on a map. He compares the computer setup to a flight simulator.

During the first three days of raids in Fallujah, ScanEagle was the only one of the four unmanned aerial vehicle systems transmitting a bird’s eye view of the battle area.

“Flying at 1,800 feet, we could see insurgents but they couldn’t see us — we could see people on roofs with RPGs,” Marino said. “After the first day of the raid, we earned our wings.”

Oh wait, they already are! According to Naval-Technology:

Under a contract placed in April 2005, US Navy ScanEagles have been deployed since July 2005 onboard 15 destroyers and LSDs. In December 2006, the Australian Army placed a contract for ScanEagle, also used in Iraq.

By January 2009, ScanEagle had made over 1,500 successful shipboard recoveries on US Navy vessels and passed 50,000 combat flight hours with the US Marines in Iraq. It has been deployed on USN amphibious assault and dock landing ships and, from 2009, the USN has plans to deploy the UAV on Ticonderoga Class Aegis cruisers.


The Land-Based Alternative

Speaking of UAVs, one of their great benefits over manned aircraft is persistence and range. Especially in the case of large UAVs like Predator and Global Hawk they can stay in the air for days compared to a few hours for manned jets, even with refueling. Capt. Wayne Hughes in a recent study titled “The Navy’s New Fighting Machine” (More on this important document later) provides details of the possible future:

Some UAVs for scouting can be land based in support of the fighting machine because of their long aerial endurance. A recent NPS thesis by  Lt. Nicholas Wissel illustrates.31 He proposed to reestablish the viability of a surface action group comprising DDGs to confront a Chinese surface action group (of existing PLA-N warships) by using long-range Predator UAVs flying from Guam to team with suitable new surface-to-surface missiles carried in the DDGs. For better defense, he diluted the enemy missile strike with DDG-based short-range UAVs that radiate signals to make them look to enemy missiles like a warship. Long-range search and short-range deception are merely intended here to indicate some of the “new” roles UAVs can play.

Here is something the Royal Navy should specifically consider, if her planned giant deck carriers are canceled, something not unthinkable. Land based drones might also support Influence Squadrons on coastal patrol, given their closeness to land areas.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2010 4:31 pm

    Gas turbines are a bit fire prone. I don’t think the Times reporter understands that Ollies can be swapped out………….

  2. Scott B. permalink
    January 7, 2010 4:10 pm

    Jed said : “Erm, yeah, Scan Eagle is tiny (payload wise) – what radar would it loft, how high and for how long ?”

    Nano-SAR :

    Range is currently about 1 km :

    Range may eventually be extended to aboout 10 km :

  3. January 7, 2010 3:35 pm

    The payload is about 6kg I think so pretty small but then its a small UAV!

    Sensors seems to be getting smaller all the time though so who knows what is possible in the future. At the minute I think it is limited to EO and IR but they are trialling a SAR and radio rebroadcast payload.

    Insitu have also just introduced a slightly larger version as well

  4. Jed permalink
    January 7, 2010 3:17 pm

    Mike asked: “Any reason small UAVs like ScanEagle can’t be launched from surface combatants to provide individual ships their own personal airborne-early warning today?”

    Erm, yeah, Scan Eagle is tiny (payload wise) – what radar would it loft, how high and for how long ? I am pretty sure this would not work. I reckon you would need the MQ8 at least, and more likely the A160, with a new lightweight active phased array radar.

    I am not even sure Scan Eagle has the payload capabilities for that airborne jammer scenario you mention above :-(

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