When it comes to equipping 21st-century aircraft carriers, the US Navy wants a mix of aircraft that are at least 60 percent unmanned. This goal was “outlined by various officials during updates at the Tailhook Association’s annual symposium in September.” reports Aviation Weekreferring to the conference held by a fraternal order of Naval Aviators, the pilots who now and in the past did the kind of work the Navy intends to transfer primarily to robots.
The Navy has made no secret of its intentions to move toward more drones flying on and off aircraft carriers. In March 2021, Vice Admiral. James Kilby told the House Armed Services Committee that “we think we could get more than 40 percent of the aircraft in an unmanned air wing and then transition beyond that.”
Going from 40 percent to 60 percent is a substantial jump, though it’s part of the overall strategy for how the Navy intends to incorporate and expand the use of unmanned vehicles in the coming decades. In the navigation plan 2022In the Navy’s long-term acquisition strategy document, the Navy said that by the 2040s it plans to deploy “Aircraft for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, to include helicopters and reconnaissance and maritime patrol aircraft, all augmented by non-aircraft systems.” manned” with a target capacity of “approximately 900.”
For the Navy, much of its unmanned aviation plans hinge on the continued success of the MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone. The Stingray’s mission is to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier and travel with fighters such as F/A-18 jets part of the way to its mission. The Stingray is then supposed to fill aircraft’s fuel tanks while they’re already in the air, extending those fighters’ functional range. This is a mission currently performed by specially equipped F/A-18s, but switching refueling to a specialized drone would free up the manned fighter for other missions.
In June 2021, a Stingray successfully transferred fuel from an external storage tank to a fighter in flight for the first time, and testing of the aircraft continues, with the Navy hoping the drones will enter service. in 2026. While not as flashy as the combat missions Navy drones may one day fly, tanker missions require mastery of the ability to take off and land on aircraft carrier decks, as well as the ability of a vehicle without crew to coordinate with human pilots in close contact while in the air. . If the airframe and its autonomous systems can achieve that, then adaptation of the form to other missions, such as exploration or attack, may come in the future.
Adding unmanned aircraft can potentially increase the raw number of flying machines in the field, as autonomous systems are not limited by the availability or ability of human pilots. The uncrewed aircraft can also be designed from the ground up without the need to accommodate human pilots, allowing designers to build aircraft structures without having to include space not only for cockpits, but also for pilot safety systems such as ejection seats, oxygen and redundant engines.
By saving piloting work by shifting toward autonomy and saving space on an aircraft carrier through a denser unmanned layout, robotic wingmates could allow ships to put more flying machines in the sky, without needing to have a similar expansion in the number of pilots or carrier decks. .
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The Navy’s intent has parallels throughout the Department of Defense. In September, DARPA announced ANCILLARY, a program seeking a versatile drone that can fly from harsh environments and ship decks, without the need for additional infrastructure. GAMBIT, a program of defense contractor General Atomics, is being pitched to the Air Force as a way to develop four different drone models from a single-core design, allowing for cost savings and versatility with shared parts.
Beyond those speculative programs, the Air Force has worked to develop semi-autonomous drones that can take orders and fly information with human-piloted planes. This Loyal Wingmate program aims to expand the number of aircraft, and in turn sensors and weapons, that can fly in formation, again without expanding the number of pilots needed. It also allows the Air Force to develop a rotating cast of drones around existing manned fighters, with expected shorter production lead times and rapid deployment of new capabilities once they are developed.
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The Navy’s ultimate vision, one suggested 40 percent uncrewed and 60 percent necessary, is that the new robotic planes perform well enough to justify their place in carrier storage, while also being Expendable enough that they can bear most of the risk in any conflict. , sparing human pilots exposure to enemy anti-aircraft weaponry. A downed pilot is a tragedy. A downed drone is just lost equipment and the resulting paperwork.