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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington D.C.) The Navy almost developed a stealthy, armed, carrier-launched attack drone to bring new range dimensions to maritime power projection and conduct high-risk forward offensive missions against enemy air defenses, enemy surface ships and even adversarial fighter aircraft.
The first-of-its-kind drone could have also been developed into a carrier-launched refueler. Based upon a Northrop Grumman developed X-47B demonstrator aircraft, the Navy’s UCLASS program achieved a huge milestone several years ago by landing autonomously on an aircraft carrier. However, following extensive debate and programmatic deliberation, the UCLASS program was scrapped in favor of a less stealthy, unarmed refueler drone called the MQ-25 Stingray.
Now, some prominent members of Congress are calling for the Navy to again pursue a UCLASS-like capability.
“The Navy needs to develop an unmanned, long range, carrier based, penetrating strike capability. Yet, this nascent UCLASS program was usurped to field a far less capable MQ-25 tanking drone,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces ranking member said in prepared remarks in Congress.
Wittman, and others throughout recent years, have lamented the demise or disappearance of the UCLASS program, as there does not appear to be any kind of comparable capability specific to a maritime warfare environment.
What happened? The UCLASS drone ran into an interesting predicament, as it was intended, much like the new to bring the dual-advantage of combining stealthy reconnaissance and air attack weapons capability into a single platform. The program collided into a wall of debate, with some developers arguing that the aircraft needed to remain stealthy like the X-47B to defeat rival air defenses, yet others felt it needed to be larger, bulkier and therefore less stealthy to carry large fuel tanks in order to conduct longer-dwell missions without needing to return or refuel. Ultimately, the platform never did quite seem to reconcile these positions or recover from this conceptual collision and thus wound up evolving into what is now the MQ-25 Stingray aerial refueler drone.
The Pentagon is already known to operate some stealthy drones, as well as armed drones, yet there may also be space for new drones which are both armed and stealthy? Perhaps even some tailored to a maritime warfare environment as UCLASS was. Many are familiar with the stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel drone, named the “beast of Kandahar,” and DARPA is now developing its new LongShot armed attack drone, which looks a little stealthy. However, is there a carrier-launched armed attack drone? Wouldn’t there certainly seem to be an argument for why one might be needed in today’s modern threat environment?
Added to the threat equation and potential urgency of the argument is the fact that China has built its stealthy, armed Gongi-11 drone, which was on deployment in a Chinese National Day parade. While only the top is visible in available photographs, images of the drone reveal a blended wing-body stealthy exterior similar in design construction to the RQ-170 Sentinel and even a B-2. The Chinese attack drone, at least based upon its external configuration, does appear to align with the Chinese military's longstanding and well-documented tendency to attempt to "rip off" or replicate successful U.S. weapons designs.
The UCLASS drone, and the X-47B represented real breakthroughs for the Navy and, it seemed clear, introduced a new sphere of tactical maritime attack possibilities, something of particular relevance given the changing threat environment. An ability to operate unmanned strike, particularly with a stealthy platform more likely to succeed against advanced air defenses or in high-threat areas, could prove to be a vital asset in places such as the Pacific where well-documented Chinese anti-ship missiles could make it riskier for carriers to operate in certain proximity to enemy coastal areas. Also, a stealthy platform such as the X-47B or stealthy UCLASS, armed with precision weaponry, could conduct successful covert attack missions against enemy ships, aircraft or even submarines close to the surface.
As for the Chinese drone, it is not clear that the new Chinese Gongi-11 can launch or operate from sea, as that is not likely, however it does bring a rare blend of attributes not likely to be matched by other countries. Many countries naturally have armed stealth fighters, yet armed stealth drones have not really emerged. Of course the U.S. operates several strike drones such as the less-stealthy Reaper, yet available info on the RQ-170 suggests it is unarmed. It can be difficult to optimize a blend of what might be tough to combine characteristics, as weapons pylons or weight and size-adding internal weapons bays can make the engineering of a super stealthy platform more challenging.
Surveillance drones have existed around the world for years, armed drones, while less common, exist as well. Stealthy drones even exist, to some extent. Combining all of these features into a single platform, however, is both challenging and very interesting. To what extent has China truly accomplished this?
Such a weapons platform would certainly bring a certain immediacy to attack operations and likely greatly decrease sensor to shooter time, image transmission to fire control latency as well as of course targeting and precision attack in heavily defended areas.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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.