110204-N-0000X-001The fight over the Navy’s next-generation unmanned asset, the UCLASS, continues, with, as USNI’s Sam Lagrone reports, another delay:

The final request for proposal (RFP) for the Navy’s planned carrier-based unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has been delayed pending a review of the service’s information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) portfolio as part of the service’s budget process this fall…

It’s all a fascinating saga over a fight between two options–a high-end strike platform and a light maritime patrol bomber. They’re both great–Who wouldn’t want a crew-less super-high-endurance stealth penetrator? And who, these days, can do without a simple COIN-inspired, remotely-guided maritime ISR/patrol bomber/utility refueller?

They’re both needed, right?

Well…as much as America’s cash position argues for an incrementalist, flying-before-buying process that, oh, ensures the validity of those “boring-yet-vital” aspects of non-crewed airframes, it is time to bite the bullet and focus on making the supercarrier the home for exotic, high-end and longer-range stuff. Despite rumors that one contractor has an unfair advantage from prior work, let’s push our big four to meet the technical challenge of a long-range carrier-based penetrator.

An unmanned ISR/light strike platform does not need to fly off of carriers just yet…

Predator-c-avenger-5The Cost of An ISR/Patrol Bomber UCLASS is Too High

Admittedly, the no-frills ISR/Patrol Bomber UCLASS option is hard to resist. Yes, the supercarrier would certainly benefit from a low-end, simple patrol craft. And yes, a basic patrol craft is an achievable goal–almost an automatic win. And yes, a patrol craft/light bomber would be immediately useful. It’d be an obvious step for a community desperate to cast off the funds-sucking, stigma of the constantly-criticized F-35.

But…despite the prospect of easy wins, are the costs worth paying?

Hold on….Costs? What costs? Isn’t this supposed to be an automatic win?

Nope.

There are costs–just not super-obvious ones. But the costs are there. Putting an ISR/light strike patrol bomber on the carrier risks stifling innovation in an otherwise vibrant R&D scene. A carrier-based ISR platform will kill off (or just fatally challenge) the MQ-4C Triton–the still-developing land-based Broad Area Maritime Surveillance platform–and stifle interesting light strike ISR platforms and ISR concepts that are just beginning to percolate throughout the fleet.

No-crew ISR platforms should be protected as a space for nurturing new ideas/platforms/concepts–it’s one of a dwindling number of avenues for small, innovative players to enter the autonomous defense system business.

We all know what will happen if we go with the “easy” option–The moment this ISR/light strike mission-set becomes associated with a big carrier-flight-deck-bound “Program of Record”, all those interesting developmental platforms and ideas will evaporate. The UCLASS (and ONLY the UCLASS) will be allowed to “meet” the requirement–and because the Navy will have sold the low-end UCLASS as a prototype for something better, NOTHING will be allowed to threaten UCLASS.

An ISR UCLASS will kill off the cheap and innovative niche that unmanned ISR has become.

And that makes no sense.

The carrier doesn’t need a light-strike ISR platform clogging the flight deck right now.

BAMS is coming on-line (surely that can be rigged to carry a bomblet or two, yes?).  And, well, aren’t the lower-end “pocket” flat-decks–the LHA/LHD/AFSB spaces–the appropriate place for ISR or COIN-esque light-attack surveillance UAVs anyway? With an explosion of USN AFSB-like platforms looking inevitable, there is going to be a lot of space for innovation in the ISR/light strike space. I mean, even the Independence Class LCS could, with some tweaking, serve to provide airspace surveillance during a big aircraft carrier’s 12 hour “off time”…there are a lot of platforms out there that might not have a traditional flight deck, but, in a pinch, will be able to support the carrier’s 12-hour off-time ISR needs AND support low-end innovation and prototyping. They need protecting.

When I’m in a cynical mood, I believe a low-end UCLASS protects the established aerospace “majors” by eliminating this nifty on-ramp for new ideas, new concepts–and potentially new competitors (General Atomics cracks a wry grin here).  And, as an added bonus, by trumping the advanced UCLASS, the big aerospace companies eliminate a potential threat to the upcoming next-generation manned carrier aircraft competition (the F-35 showed us all just how good the manned strike aircraft business can be!).

The Navy gets some “benefits” by supporting a less-ambitious UCLASS too. Sure, the Service does get an immediately useful asset, BUT….it also foists the technical challenge of fielding a long-range penetrator off onto the Air Force (which–who knows? The Air Force may already have a good candidate hidden in some classified program someplace). A low-end UCLASS also hands the boring duties of refueling, patrolling and ground support off to some guy sitting in a recliner somewhere in Nevada, allowing the carrier-based fighter jocks to focus on their glamorous job of, well, being fighter jocks. And, finally, it sets America’s supercarrier CONOPs in amber, defusing the doctrinal challenge posed by capable, long-range UAVs to the queen of the fleet–the nuclear-powered supercarrier.

X-47BQuestions for the High-End Penetrator UCLASS

I do like incremental development spirals–the progression of the Virginia Class sub from one production flight to the next offers a great example. But with un-crewed and very specialized platforms, I like the idea of pushing the envelope–and right now, in this period of relative peace and relative American maritime supremacy, is the time to do it.

Aside from the usual concerns about embarking upon another ambitious project, fated to follow in the footsteps of the behind-schedule and over-budget F-35-esque program, a deep-strike, stealthy UCLASS is disruptive, and comes freighted with some questions that probably should be discussed a bit more in open forums before a UCLASS RFP is released:

Will a strike UCLASS kill manned aircraft?  Maybe. At least that’s the theory proposed by the UNSI newsers, here:

In particular, the change in UCLASS from a deep strike stealthy penetrator into the current lightly armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) focused aircraft was — in large part — to preserve a manned version of the F/A-XX replacement for the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, several Navy, Pentagon and industry sources confirmed to USNI News.

Industry, Pentagon and Navy sources outlined a, “bureaucratic and cultural resistance to the introduction of unmanned aircraft onto the carrier.”

There’s nothing new here. We all accept that crewed aircraft are still needed, but uncrewed aircraft are inexorably marching to the fore. It’s still a debate that needs to be fleshed out, in public and far more often (It’s odd that stuff like Air-Sea Battle gets more oxygen….surely the march of un-crewed aircraft merits more urgent scrutiny than Air-Sea Battle…).

Can a strike UCLASS kill the supercarrier? Maybe. Look. Everybody agrees that America’s big aircraft carriers are too valuable to operate in a contested littoral environment. So, if we consider that close-in carrier strikes are a non-starter against a nation like, say, China, then yeah, it’s probably best to keep the supercarrier fleets far, far away from land, somewhere in the vast wastes of the Pacific, Antarctic or Indian Oceans. With that scenario in mind, it’s easy to see the value of a long-range, high-endurance strike aircraft.

But…when does this long-range, high-endurance strike craft eliminate the need for the carrier? I mean, imagine if the UCLASS program gives the Department of Defense some penetrating carrier-borne UAV with enormous range and the endurance to lurk almost anywhere. If that happens, then, well, why pay for 4.5 acres of American sovereignty as a base for those UAVs? If the added range is seen as nothing more than a means to protect a multi-billion-dollar asset–and to let the crew enjoy, say, the desolate and unmonitored Antarctic Seas, then why not just keep those UAVs in the air 24-7, orbiting the strike penetrators out of Okinawa, Guam, Diego Garcia and elsewhere?

It’s a question that merits some thought, particularly given the Navy’s ever-constant worry about the future of their constantly-challenged “Queen of the Fleet” supercarriers.

Does a strike UCLASS change the supercarrier mission?  Yes. If standoff ranges are becoming so vast that strike platforms will need to be thousands of nautical miles “behind the lines”, then the only way the good-old supercarrier can justify fancy capabilities like, oh,  super-fast sortie generation (remember, that’s THE prime selling point for the super-pricey Ford Class), is to become less of an initial “strike” weapon and more of an initial strike “facilitator” (injecting all those interesting ancillary platforms that support those first strikes on a prepared air-defense system), and post-first strike base (pumping sorties into the area compromised by the initial blow).

This question needs further community-wide discussion. If the penetrating UCLASS is only good if it is escorted by a whole bunch of jammers, escorts and so forth, then maybe it is wiser to focus on shorter-range airframes optimized to support longer-range stealthy strikers from (gasp) the Air Force. Or can the stealthy UCLASS airframe support those critical ancillary missions too? I dunno–but maintaining the idea that the long-range UCLASS needs support from shorter-range carrier assets makes no sense. (Well, maybe…about as much sense as sending in our fast, long-range MV-22s off on missions with slow, conventional rotary-wing gunships as escorts. But still we do it!)

Does a stealthy UCLASS make the carrier airwing extinct?  Yes. UAVs can be migrants, wandering from carrier to carrier, offering some fascinating opportunities to change capabilities “on-the-fly”.

But Carrier Air Wings are woven into Navy culture and command pathways. Shift them, and you’re messing with the tectonic plates of the future Navy.

greyhoundIs there a middle ground?

As an interim, if we really want to get unmanned aircraft on the carrier without fear of technical over-reach or ISR-light strike niche-poaching, then why not consider developing an unmanned Carrier Onboard Delivery aircraft?  A high-priority cargo and air-to-air refueler offers a route to a cost-effective asset–and an asset of immediate use–for a niche that nobody is really eager to fill.

The timing is perfect. The C-2 Greyhound COD is a venerable aircraft, and it needs replacing–ASAP. Greyhounds are so old and so highly used, they’re simply falling apart.

Right now, an “updated” aircraft based on the old C-2 Greyhound airframe is battling it out with the MV-22. Now, I’m not saying that we should replace the old-school COD with an unmanned variant–The conventional COD carries too many passengers and sees too many different airports to entirely eliminate the pilot. But…surely there is room for an unmanned solution to share the load–particularly in moving heavy stores from established “hub-and-spoke” depots out to the carrier….and in serving as an air-to-air tanker in low-threat areas.

In my mind, while the big four work on the challenges of a high-tech UCLASS, there is ample room to develop something fast that can serve as both a heavy air freighter (Those big F-35 engines aren’t going to be schlepped around by the much-ballyhooed future MV-22 CODs anytime soon!) and air-to-air tanker. It’d get a long-range, unmanned platform on a carrier–letting the carrier work out how to interact with a UAV while also getting accustomed to a longer-range platform.

It would also give the aerospace majors an opportunity to start playing–right now–in the unmanned cargo delivery space–getting FAA approvals for operations gets a whole lot easier if you’ve been flying off of carriers and in-and-out of bases for awhile….and for that, I’d wager the aerospace majors would pay a premium.

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Israel: A Future Sub Builder?

by admin on August 20, 2014

SuperDolphinComparisonDiagramIn the race to keep up with neighboring navies, Israel has taken a prudent middle course, developing indigenous solutions for low-end craft, and reaching out to other nations to provide more complex ships and submarines.

Though Israel has done very, very well buying ships and subs overseas–Israel will, within the next few years, begin the process of developing it’s own indigenously-built submarine.

Even though Israel’s German-built submarine fleet is top-notch, the evolution towards an Israeli-built submarine is inevitable. It will happen despite the fact that the Israeli Defense Force sub fleet will soon be sporting the best undersea tech Germany can offer–According to the indefatigable Chris Cavas, two of three of Israel’s new Dolphin II subs are almost ready to enter the Israeli Navy, adding to Israel’s existing fleet of three Dolphin Class boats.

But don’t let Chris’s photo-driven story lull you into believing this mutually-beneficial Israel-Germany relationship will last forever. By all means, go and enjoy all the pretty pictures, but keep in mind that Chris’s real story is the documentation of just how important the German sub-production industrial base is in supporting Israel’s growing submarine fleet. For the Israeli Navy, it is a discomfiting reminder of the sub fleet’s dependence upon Germany as, essentially, Israel’s most important sub training and support base. Think about it. The first-in-class Dolphin II was accepted by Israel more than two years ago, and it is still fitting out and training up in Germany.

It’s also something of a cautionary story–the parallels to France’s burgeoning Mistral Class problem couldn’t be clearer. If international umbrage over the Ukraine can force France to even think about canceling the sale of three Mistrals to Russia, then, well, I can’t see Israel being too sanguine about their continued dependency on foreign sources for platforms that will have an increasingly obvious strategic–if not an outright nuclear-armed deterrence–role.

So….I’m going to make the call right now. I fully expect Israel to develop their own independent sub-building infrastructure, and that Israel’s course towards an indigenous sub will take shape over the next couple of years.

dol03bLook at maintenance trends:

A competent sub-building industrial base doesn’t just spring into being overnight. It’s all a product of a long, slow and costly set of investments–starting, of course, with the development of a maintenance cadre.

Israel is increasingly well-equipped to sustain the ever-growing maintenance demands of her sub fleet.

After sending the old Gal Class subs back to Germany for a final refit, the Israeli Navy successfully took on the refit job with their three “legacy” Dolphins, repairing and refitting a somewhat “scratched and dented” Dolphin in late 2011:

Israel recently revealed that one of its Dolphin class submarines (that entered service in 1998-2000) had secretly spent nearly two years in an Israeli shipyard. The sub was partially disassembled and its engine and plumbing was cleaned and upgraded. Hull cracks were repaired and various other items were fixed. The boat, which entered service in 1999, is now expected to remain in service until 2030.

The results were positive enough for Israel to refit another, finishing their second boat’s mid-life refit in 2014:

For more than two years, Israel’s Leviathan submarine, one of three in the Israel Navy, has undergone careful and continuous renovation. Dozens of naval technicians, electricians and engineers have invested a staggering 360,000 manpower hours in restoring the 15-year-old vessel to her original glory, taking her apart piece by piece and rebuilding her anew.

I presume the third Dolphin is getting her two-year refit now, which means, in two years, Israel will have a pretty competent set of sub-ready shipyard workers just…waiting for work.

That work is going to come. There are just too many boats–and too many sub-makers out there in the Mediterranean for Israel to sit back and rely on other countries. The Med has become a real epicenter of “conventional” Submarine proliferation, and I can’t see Israel’s Navy (undervalued as it is), being content with boats that are remotely similar to those Greece and Turkey are starting to produce. They’ll want–and likely need–something better.

High operational tempo (two operational subs completed 54 special operations in 2013 alone), suggests that Israel’s maintainers are doing a great job of leveraging Haifa’s growing yet still cramped and over-crowded naval base. But a proficient sub industrial base is only kept proficient if it has something to do. Once that final “legacy” Dolphin mid-life refit is complete, it’ll have little work…unless there’s a project or two to work on.

And there will be.

Trident IIThe road to indigenous production:

Look, the days of counting on Germany’s support for Israel’s sub fleet is drawing to a close. Israel is already demonstrating that it doesn’t really need much German help to maintain their current fleet, and as the next-generation Dolphin II subs are delivered, Israel is going to need the freedom to operate independently without risking an increasingly critical Israeli strategic platform.

Subs might be expensive, but they are just too valuable for Israel to rely on other countries to supply ‘em.

The trends are against continued Germany/Israel collaboration on subs. As Israel moves closer and closer to fielding an official “nuclear” deterrent, testing things like new solid-fuel ballistic missiles and mulling an openly nuclearized Middle East, Israel may be developing an apatite for submarine-launched ballistic missile platforms, and…maybe even acquiring a taste for a nuclear-powered submarine platform–two design spirals that Germany is both politically and technically unready to pursue.

And, though I hate to say it, there’s a market out there to fund such ventures–both nuclear power and sub-launched ballistic missile tech would be of real interest to nominally-aligned countries like Brazil, India…or some other countries in the Asia-Pacific. Israel may have a fighting chance to grab the high-yielding “higher-tech” strategic sub market. We’ll see.

But first, the IDF sub fleet needs to grow. We’re already seeing some rumblings about further growth of Israel’s sub fleet. The fleet is growing from three boat crews to ten (to…man six subs? Hmmm..), and then there’s this, from the August 17 issue of the Jerusalem Post:

Submarine deployments could be helpful or even indispensable to Israel’s nuclear deterrence posture. Submarines, after all, represent the ultimate stealth weapon, and an SLBM force could essentially guarantee the ability to unleash a catastrophic retaliatory strike. Naturally, these deployments would not replicate America’s nuclear response capability. Currently, 50-55% of this country’s nuclear response force is submarine-based in certain times of crisis.

Because of Israel’s irremediable lack of strategic depth, the small country’s submarine force represents an “ace in the hole” element of strategic deterrence. Now, Israel is upgrading its three Dolphin I submarines purchases from Germany with three additional Dolphin II submarines. These boats are diesel powered, and unlike the US nuclear submarine capability, are limited by the length of time they can remain submerged.

Israel’s submarines have been designed and built for specific Israeli requirements, and are larger than the German type 212 submarines. One must assume that the larger size is to accommodate nuclear tipped missiles. This capability is critical to maintain Israel’s deterrence from enemy attack. The country needs to continue with refinements of this sea-based retaliatory capability. Nuclear powered submarines would be preferable, in principle, but due to cost and construction requirements, they are not attainable, at least in the near term.

Emphasis mine. And even if the pursuit of nuclear-powered subs or ballistic-missile-ready vessels are just long-term, “aspirational” goals, there are plenty of smaller projects–swimmer vehicles and other undersea tinker-toy concepts–out there to nurture and grow Israel’s undersea warfare industrial base. If not, well, there’s always the challenge of reverse-engineering the new Dolphins or…offshore gas projects, I suppose…

Economic and political realities/difficulties aside, my inner naval architect would sure be interested in seeing just what Israel could actually produce–given the country’s set of top-notch engineers, it’s vast array of operational experience, and some neat whiz-bang tech, I’d bet Israel could, in rather short order, produce an advanced sub that could do quite well on the international market.

We shall see. But I’m betting that in about two years, Israel is going to have a path towards indigenous sub construction pretty much sketched out for us all to ponder

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Will A Shipyard Fire Burn All Aluminum Warships?

August 14, 2014

A catastrophic shipyard fire that, by all accounts, destroyed Australia’s all-aluminum HMAS Bundaburg (ACPB-91), one of Australia’s 14 useful–yet oft-maligned–Armidale Class patrol boats, will reignite debate over the survivability of aluminum warships. When the public finally sees the melted, burned-out remains of HMAS Bundaburg (photos that will likely be dramatic, given that the fire was not […]

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Appreciate China’s Big New Seaplane

August 7, 2014

A good deal of polite Western snickering met the announcement that China was on the verge of building large seaplanes–an “old technology”, scoffed the haters, whose “heyday came and went with the demise of the Pan Am Trans-Oceanic Clipper”. But at least one Chinese aviation commentator dispensed a bit of wisdom for the doubters: “The […]

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In Press: Talking Mines in the Taipei Times

August 5, 2014

The Taipei Times, in a friendly gesture, used my story on China’s recent mine warfare exercises in the South China Sea to advance some wider discussion mine warfare in China’s near seas. Here’s my bit: Craig Hooper, a former teacher at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, has reported that the Chinese navy conducted […]

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Nonproliferation’s Big Week

August 2, 2014

A week after I worried that the American public had forgotten about nuclear threats and had allowed their fear of nuclear weapons to recede, nonproliferation had quite a week. John Oliver, in his HBO program Last Week Tonight, did his part to raise American awareness of nuclear warfare, devoting about half of his show to […]

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To Sell U.S. Combatants Overseas–Follow the French!

July 31, 2014

U.S. naval ship vendors could learn a thing or two from the French, as they’ve thusfar fought off extensive American efforts to intrude on France’s niche market in small surface combatants. It’s almost embarrassing.  Despite American efforts to sell the Littoral Combat Ship, the French Gowind-Class corvette “family of ships” has quietly taken big bites […]

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Mine Warfare Has Come To The South China Sea

July 29, 2014

Less than a month after I highlighted the real potential for mine warfare in the South China Sea (here), the Chinese Navy has, for the first time, publicly announced mine warfare drills in the South China Sea. From Xinhuanet: The Chinese navy has conducted a mine clearance drill in formation in the South China Sea […]

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Navy Surface Fires: Overlooking Israeli Experiences, Again…

July 24, 2014

In America’s arcane and endless doctrinal debates over amphibious warfare (examples here and here), one constant shines above all–the incessant Marine Corps call for large-caliber fire support from the sea. To “big gun” fire support advocates, the little “popguns” on America’s Littoral Combat Ships, Frigates, Destroyers and Cruisers don’t seem to matter at all in shore […]

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Fear Nuclear War: It IS Five Minutes To Midnight, After All…

July 20, 2014

We just don’t fear nuclear weapons enough anymore. While the global fear of nuclear war has receded, the threat of nuclear war is a very real and fast-growing danger. Lacking a healthy global uptick in appreciation of the consequences of nuclear conflict–a fear that both endows nuclear weapons with value while helping to prevent their […]

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