The Future of Naval Aviation: This Century’s Naval Aviation Pioneers Flying Unmanned Aircraft

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

December 6, 2011

On Oct. 9, 1903, The New York Times predicted, “The flying machine which might really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one to 10 million years.” Yet that very same day, two brothers who owned a bicycle shop in Ohio started assembling the very first airplane. 
And only six years from that date, Lt. George C. Sweet would climb into a plane built by those same brothers at College Park, Md., becoming the first U.S. Navy officer ever to take flight. One year after that, Eugene Ely flew off a wooden platform built on the bow of the USS Birmingham (CL 2) and the era of naval aviation was truly at hand, literally “one to 10 million years” earlier than the experts’ predictions. 

We should keep this history in mind when trying to project where naval aviation is headed next, especially in the realm of “unmanned” or robotic systems. In the blink of an eye, a technology that once seemed as science fiction as a “flying machine” is now rapidly being adopted into the force. In the last decade, the number of unmanned aerial systems in the overall U.S. military inventory has gone from a mere handful to over 7,000 and growing. And, just like with those early aeroplanes, the naval side is an active part of this technological revolution.

Today, the new unmanned systems entering into the fleet run the gamut of size, shape and form. For instance, the role of broad area maritime surveillance is being taken over by the RQ-4 Global Hawk. With a wingspan of 116 feet and an operational weight of over 22,000 pounds, it dwarfs the early planes that Sweet and Ely flew. Staying in the air over 24 hours, while carrying 3,000 pounds of electro-optical, infrared and synthetic aperture radar sensors, at heights of over 65,000 feet, the system provides persistent maritime intelligence, ISR data collection and dissemination at a global level. 

While the RQ-4 operates from a land base, the Navy is also working to equip many of its ships at sea. On the surface fleet, these include smaller systems like the MQ-8 Fire Scout. Able to take off and land autonomously from any warship with a small deck, the little helicopter has deployed against drug runners in the Caribbean, pirates off Somalia, insurgents in Afghanistan, and recently helped targeting in the Libya operation. It packs thermal imagers, radar, high-powered video cameras and a laser designator that can find and fix targets to be taken out either by the mother ship’s weapons or rockets to be carried on the drone itself. With a range of over 200 miles, the robotic chopper is an unmanned echo of those early floatplanes, taking the eyes of a surface ship’s captain further than ever before, including inland. 

The centerpiece of future plans for unmanned systems at sea may be the Navy’s unmanned, carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS) program. This type of robotic plane is specially designed to take on the ultimate of human pilot roles, the “Top Gun.” Some of the key contenders at the prototype stage right now are the Northrop Grumman X-47, Lockheed Martin RQ-170, General Atomics Sea Avenger, and Boeing Phantom Ray. Without a cockpit, and in some cases, even no tail wings, such systems have been described as looking more like a set piece from the television program “Battlestar Galactica” than our traditional notions of a plane. But these same attributes give them capabilities well beyond even some of the latest manned strike fighters. Designed to be especially stealthy for the most dangerous roles, such as sneaking past enemy air defenses, the prototypes have launched precision guided missiles, been “passed off” between different remote human operators 900 miles away from each other and, in one war game, autonomously detected unexpected threats (missiles that “popped-up” seemingly out of nowhere), engaged and destroyed them and then did battle damage assessment on their own. They also promise to lighten the load on human operators. One human pilot remotely flew two UCASs at the same time. 

The current U.S. Naval Aviation Master Plan includes provisions for the UCLASS systems to be flying off of carrier decks by 2018. Whether they will be delegated to take on tasks on their own or paired with manned planes, for a package that is greater than the sum of its parts, is a crucial question of naval air combat doctrine moving forward. It is akin to the question early warplanes faced as to whether they were to be tethered to the existing surface force of battleships or serve as their own new form of battle fleet.

For all the excitement of such programs, it is important to realize two things. The first is that we are only at the start of this robotic revolution at sea, the World War I stage of things, if airplanes are a parallel. Indeed, just as the first Navy planes started out just for observation and soon began to be used for everything from bombing runs to carrier onboard delivery (COD), so we are seeing a similar expansion with unmanned systems. But just like back then, we don’t yet have all the answers as to the optimal roles and doctrine. Even the basic design of this technology remains to be learned and adopted. The next few decades will be an exciting time, with new paths being forged, much like they were by the first generation of naval aviation pioneers. 

The second lesson, though, is that despite its relentless advancement, there are no signs that technology will end the central role of humans in war and at sea any time soon. The specifics of the human roles may be altered, certainly; most Navy warplanes today don’t have tail gunners or navigators. And the skill sets and ranks of those who wear the wings of gold might change; does the remote operator of a plane that can take off and land on its own, who is sitting behind a computer screen, actually need 20/20 eyesight or the ability to do 50 sit-ups? Do they even need to be an officer?

But war will remain the same at its essence: a human affair fought because of human needs, desires, and flaws. And for that reason, we can be certain of one thing: the America of the future will still need the same thing it needed in the last 100 years, the men and women of a strong and powerful Navy to ensure her security.