PATUXENT RIVER NAVAL AIR STATION: The future of Navy long-range reconnaissance, the recently arrived MQ-4C Triton drone, sprawls across its hangar here, with a wingspan 13 feet wider than a Boeing 737 but a body that’s 80 percent lighter.
Designed for 24-hour-plus patrols at 50,000 feet, Triton still can’t do the job by itself, say both the program manager and the admiral in charge of all Navy drones. It will provide the high-altitude, theater-spanning coverage that cues more tactically-focused recon aircraft to zoom in (in both senses of the word). Primarily, that means the manned, land-based P-8 Poseidon and the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance & Strike (UCLASS) drone. That’s three tricky balls for the Navy to keep in the air at once, especially in a time of tightening budgets:
The P-8 entered service late last year and is meant to work intimately with Triton. But the equipment to let a P-8 crew see all of a Triton’s sensor data and to remotely control the drone “is unfunded at this point,” Capt. Jim Hoke, the Triton program manager, admitted to visiting reporters last week.
As for Triton, as of late October all three aircraft built so far will be at Pax River for testing. A fourth test aircraft was cut for lack of funds, and an important collision-avoidance radar is behind schedule. The drone will enter operational service in late 2017, on Guam, but the planned buy of 68 aircraft is in some doubt. We can probably get by with fewer, Hoke told reporters, because Triton will be more reliable and spend less time in maintenance than the planning models predict.
Meanwhile, the controversial UCLASS program has not yet asked industry to submit final designs: Its official Request For Proposals (RFP) is delayed pending a top-level review of the 2016 budget, because critics in both Congress and the Pentagon argue the Navy’s requirements focus too much on “surveillance” at the expense of “strike.”
We need all three aircraft, Rear Adm. Mathias Winter insisted when I got him alone during the Pax River visit. But, I asked, echoing the skeptics, why buy two different intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) drones? In essence, his answer was that the Triton is designed to meet the theater combatant commander’s needs, while UCLASS will work directly for the carrier strike group commander.
“The time sensitivity of carrier strike group operations [means] that immediacy of control and execution is critical,” Winter told me. UCLASS will fly from the carrier deck, typically conducting patrols 600 to 1,200 nautical miles from the carrier but able to execute 2,000-plus-mile bombing raids as well. By contrast, Triton will fly from five land bases around the world. Even with its roughly 2,000-mile operational radius, he said, “there are large areas of the globe where they are not going to be.”
Even if we somehow bought enough Tritons to have one covering every carrier at all times — and never sent carriers outside Triton’s range — we’d still need UCLASS because it has different capabilities, Winter told me:
“Triton’s not a tactical strike platform” — that is, it will carry no weapons, not even the modest 1,000-lb bombload currently envisioned for the UCLASS — “nor is it intended to have the appropriate [carrier] strike group integration” in its command-and-control systems. By contrast, Winter went on, “UCLASS is envisaged working with our Growlers, our Hornets, and our F-35s to be a complete strike package, which the Triton — though capable [in its own sphere] — would not be able to do.”
Reading between the lines a little, it also sounds like UCLASS will have higher performance. Long-range, long-endurance flight puts a premium on fuel efficiency. Hence the Triton’s extraordinarily long, thin, straight wings and its ability to fly 20,000 feet higher than the manned P-8. “You’re not burning a lot of gas at 50,000 feet,” Capt. Hoke said, because the air is so thin. As a result, he said, “the fuel burn on this platform [Triton] is about a tenth of what it is on a P-3 [turboprop], and I’m not even going to talk about it versus a P-8 [jet]. 400 pounds of fuel per hour, where on a P-3, it’s typically around 4,000 pounds per hour.” But range and endurance come at the expense of agility and speed. (This is a major concern about UCLASS, too: Optimizing it for surveillance missions compromises strike, and vice versa).
Triton will fly at high altitude with little stressful maneuvering, Winter told me, while the old P-3 Orion and new P-8 will handle lower-altitude, higher-gee searches and attacks on enemy submarines. Considering both the P-3 and P-8 derive from commercial airliners, neither is particularly nippy compared to fighter-bombers, so implying they can outmaneuver Triton is significant. As for UCLASS, while the requirements are classified (and may change), by definition it has to handle launching from and landing on an aircraft carrier, two of the most demanding maneuvers a human pilot can perform.
So it’s likely UCLASS will be more capable in combat, another way it would complement the longer-ranged but less agile Triton. The question is whether UCLASS will be battle-worthy enough.
The Skeptics Reply
I ran Rear Adm. Winter’s reasoning past a couple of well-placed UCLASS critics. One was more impressed than the other, but neither was convinced.
UCLASS shouldn’t prioritize ISR over strike missions, said the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessment’s Robert Martinage. Triton has the carrier covered. “The MQ-4C Triton was designed explicitly to provide maritime domain awareness (MDA) around the carrier strike group,” he wrote in an email. “The global distribution of primary and secondary bases for the MQ-4C was driven by the requirement to provide persistent MDA for deployed CSGs [carrier strike groups].”
“There is no need to duplicate the capability with a dedicated, onboard aircraft under the CSG commander’s control,” Martinage continued. “To that extent that tactical MDA is needed around the carrier, it could easily be provided by a combination of the E-2D [Hawkeye, a manned aircraft] and the rotary-wing M-8C Fire Scout [a drone helicopter], which can fly off any air-capable ship.”
With all these recon aircraft available, Martinage said, the gaping hole the Navy needs to fill is not ISR but long-range bombing. “Anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) defenses like those of China — combining mines, submarines, attack aircraft, and long-range anti-ship missiles — will force US aircraft carriers to stand so far offshore that relatively short-ranged F-18 and F-35 fighters can’t hit most land targets, he argued. Defeating A2/AD demands long range, a large bombload, and stealth, Martinage wrote, all of which” is not what the Navy is driving toward with the UCLASS program.”
A knowledgeable congressional staffer agreed. A dedicated ISR drone “would indeed be a good addition” to the carrier, the staffer wrote, but that’s not the carrier air wing’s greatest need. Given limited funding for new-start programs, the staffer went on, “it’s clear to me the priority should be for a power-projection UCLASS” — i.e. a bomber.
“But,” the staffer continued, “this debate over whether we need an ISR or a strike UCLASS actually raises a larger question: Are we thinking hard enough about integrating unmanned systems into the future air wing? Perhaps both camps are right and there is a compelling case for pursuing both UCLASS options.”
The money to build two different carrier-launched drones, however, is unlikely to appear in anybody’s budget. The Navy is hoping that industry can square the circle by building a UCLASS that starts out doing mainly reconnaissance but can be upgraded into a bomber over time. Whether that’s worth even attempting is something civilian leaders in the Pentagon and, ultimately, in Congress must decide.