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UCAVs and Naval Air Power

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    UCAVs and Naval Air Power

    I'd like to discuss how UCAVs can change naval air power.

    Naval air power has unique challenges and advantages, allowing any nation to operate aircraft from any coast, but usually at a much higher cost compared to land aircraft. This translates in only a select number of nations being able to field and afford a competent aircraft carrier. Foremost the US and France with their large designs, followed by Russia and now China and India.
    The Harrier brought something of a revolution to this concept, allowing smaller nations to also field modern fighters from affordable carriers. Although one could argue that upgraded Skyhawks could have projected a similar power at a similar cost, as Brazil tried to do before they ran out of money.
    And now the F-35B could potentially continue the Harrier STOVL concept. However the sheer cost of that system and added heat strain it places on carriers would also limit its practicality.

    Which leads us to UCAVs as a way of projecting air power from ships.
    A few years ago I argued on this forum that such aircraft would arrive in just a matter of years, most likely a STOVL tailsitter design. Since then we've seen two interesting concepts emerge.

    The first being DARPA's effort with TERN to develop a tailsitter design, NG is now building a prototype. Judging by the design, it looks like a Predator level UCAV that can be launched from any ship with a helipad.

    The second and I believe more important one is Kratos' efforts on the Mako UCAV, which is basically a reusable cruise missile with rocket assisted take off and parachute landing. Interestingly enough these are expected to have the range, speed and maximum altitude very similar to the Harrier, which was also used to flight test the first prototypes in formation flying. Their target versions have also been deployed off ships for decades, so there will be no problems there.

    When built, these two designs could change naval air power, for two reasons. The first being that they bring (long ranged) air power to pretty much any ship you that has the space to field them. But the second being that these designs are relatively simple and cheap, meaning they'll be easy to buy (as little as $2 million for the Mako, already cleared for exports to US allies) or design and build, China and Russia certainly have experience with missiles and target drones, as do many European nations.

    So I do see a future where many if not every nation starts deploying what are essentially weaponized target drones off their ships. They're cheap, easy to get and use, and even a small payload of precision guided bombs or missiles would be enough to achieve their mission objective.