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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

They are floating attack machines, small cities on the seas and visible examples of U.S. military power -- and the Pentagon now plans to operate 11 of them.

Aircraft carriers -- long seen as an indelible image of U.S. strength, have multi-faceted missions such as maintaining safe passageway through the worlds key waterways, deterring potential enemies by ensuring massive retaliatory strike possibility and, of course, waging war on enemies from the seas.

The Trump administration, Pentagon and Navy have now carved a decided path toward a total number of 11 carriers, effectively ending the longstanding debate about how many the U.S. should maintain. Some decision makers, particularly in the last administration, argued that the Navy could function effectively with only 10 carriers, citing cost and modernization factors. The thinking, as articulated by advocates at the time, was to save money by operating fewer carriers, yet make specific strides to ensure they remain technologically superior. However, Navy leaders and many Pentagon decision makers have long-cited the fact that the global combatant commander need for carriers has consistently exceeded the number of available carriers. Now, Navy developers say legislation approved for next year has inspired current efforts to “move out” on procurement and preparation for the 11th carrier.

Must of the question centered upon whether the USS Truman, a Nimitz-class carrier, would complete its mid-life refueling process for further service… or retire early.

"NDAA (2020 Defense Bill) language re-emphasized the need for 11 Aircraft Carriers and there was money appropriated by Congress in the FY20 budget to begin advanced planning for the Truman's refueling. I received that money and have initiated planning efforts and the procurement of long-lead materials," Capt. Charles Ehnes, In-Service Aircraft Carrier program manager, told an audience at the Surface Navy Annual Symposium Jan. 16, Arlington.

A key reason for more carriers, it would seem appropriate, is readiness. Should conflict quickly emerge in various global hotspots, or in unanticipated areas, forward-positioned Carrier Air Wing attack makes power projection much faster and more effective. It brings an advantage of strike proximity in the event that land-launch bases are not immediately within striking range. Also, as mobile attack platforms, carriers can maneuver into positions of strategic advantage, should new intelligence information change the equation. Furthermore, by bringing massive attack possibilities to areas of tactical relevance, carriers can provide a kind of "back up" attack protection to forward operating assets such as drones and surveillance planes. Should an adversary be aware of US carriers in striking range, they might be less inclined to risk confrontation by attacking US assets, such as US bases or surveillance planes. In effect, carriers are deterrents.

Apart from the expected need for warfare preparedness, carriers are essential to maintaining secure and open global waterways. Much of the Navy's mission, as articulated by senior leaders over the years, involves forward-positioning combat power to ensure safe passage for free trade, friendly travel and international business. US carriers can, in this respect, also perform counterterrorism missions and prevent piracy. Given all these variables, many senior Navy leaders have, for quite some time now, been of the view that current global mission demands simply exceed the amount of available carrier capacity.

All of this aligns with the Navy’s current push to make carriers more combat capable. This strategy appears to have a few possible dimensions. While carriers typically operate in Carrier Strike Groups surrounded by cruisers, destroyers and other warships able to provide protection, a fast-changing threat environment is expected to create the need for more dispersed, or disaggregated operations -- requiring carriers themselves to operate with more integrated offensive and defensive weapons systems.

The F-35C, naturally, will bring a new array of attack options for the Carrier Air Wing, not to mention an unprecedented measure of aerial Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR). Drawing upon new sensor and targeting technology, the aerial attack range will be significantly changed, and stealth technology will enable air attack to operate in higher threat environments, such as areas containing advanced air-defenses.

All of this pertains to a much-discussed phenomenon characterizing Navy carriers for quite some time - namely that longer-range anti-ship missiles, drone attacks, EW and laser threats from potential adversaries change the equation regarding where carriers may need to operate. Many now cite new weapons, such as the Chinese DF-21 or DF-26 anti-ship missile reportedly able to travel up to 900 miles, as missiles likely to change manner in which carriers will need to function.

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A 2011 Navy War College Review essay, written when these Chinese anti-ship missiles were earlier along in their development, interestingly seems to anticipate this problem. The essay, called “The Future of Aircraft Carriers” by Robert Rubel, describes the DF-21D this as “fitted with a maneuvering reentry head that has an anti-ship seeker built into it. The purpose of this missile is thought to be not so much to sink the carrier as to achieve a “mission kill,” causing fires and damage to the air wing and topside structures.”

However, the essay also introduces reasons why the much-hyped Chinese weapons might themselves be vulnerable or at very least countered by a wide range of carrier weapons and countermeasures. Writing before the maturation of some current and emerging ship-defense technologies, Rubel makes the point that DF-21D could be vulnerable to “jamming” through electronic warfare or other means such as “decoys.”

Also, perhaps of greatest significance, the Naval War College Review paper seems ahead of the curve in that it mentions how well-targeted defensive laser systems could be used to thwart, counteract or even destroy approaching anti-ship missiles. The author appears to have foreseen some upcoming advances with lasers which, at the time of the essay in 2011, may have been in purely conceptual phases or very early development. Laser weapons have now matured considerably, to the point where some are already deployed on Navy ships. Also, the Navy is now making rapid progress preparing and testing laser weapons for destroyer, carriers and other ships.

Finally, forward positioned surveillance, such as drones, unmanned surface ships over aerial nodes used as over-the-horizon communications relay nodes, could enable carriers to learn of incoming anti-ship missiles at farther distances.

Carrier defenses and attack weapons are taking on added importance due to the reality that, with the emergence of new Chinese and Russian fighters such as the Su-27, US aircraft can no longer assume air supremacy.

“New generations of fighters, notably the Su-27, its derivatives, and even newer designs from Russia and China, have eroded the technical advantages traditionally enjoyed by American aircraft,” the Naval War College Review writes.

Enhancing the effectiveness of a carrier-launched unmanned aerial refueler, such as the Navy’s MQ-25 Stingray, introduces an unprecedented tactical advantage specifically able to address the carrier “operating range” issue. An ability to refuel while in flight massively extends a carriers attempt to further project power, while remaining at safer stand-off distances. If the combat radius of an F-18 or F-35, on one fuel tank, reaches 300 to 400 miles or so, the aircraft will have to turn around at a certain distance from its carrier. However, if an attack platform can double that range, it can naturally travel much farther, enabling much more “dwell time” when it comes to attacks and provide the option to strike targets farther inland or from greater distances.

“Unmanned aircraft offer double or triple the range and endurance of manned aircraft. Moreover, without the need to accommodate a human, their form can be considerably more stealthy, and their operations do not need to take into account crew-rest factors, at least to the extent that they do in manned aircraft,” Rubel writes

In effect, unmanned systems and drone refuelers such as the MQ-25 might enable carriers to successfully project power, while operating outside the hit-ranges of Chinese anti-ship missiles.

The F-35C, naturally, will bring a new array of attack options for the Carrier Air Wing, not to mention an unprecedented measure of aerial Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance (ISR). Drawing upon new sensor and targeting technology, the aerial attack range will be significantly changed, and stealth technology will enable air attack to operate in higher threat environments, such as areas containing advanced air-defenses.


Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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--- Kris Osborn, Managing Editor ofWARRIORMAVEN (CLICK HERE) can be reached