Carrier-Based Drone Strike Aircraft a Game-Changer in Naval Warfare

While some future weapons systems such as the electromagnetic rail gun and the free electron laser face a dubious future, a proposal to modify the X-37B as an unpiloted strike aircraft could be a game-changer for carrier warfare.

The range of an X-37B would be extended by the use of a modified Global Hawk drone as an aerial tanker. Thus an unpiloted drone could be kept in the air almost indefinitely and would have a range of thousands of miles.

This is important because countries like China are developing carrier-killing missiles and submarines to combat American naval ships offshore. In order to attack land based installations offshore, using conventional manned aircraft such as the F-18 or the future carrier based version of the F-35, a carrier battlegroup would have to move into the operation range of China’s missile and submarine forces. Instead, using the X-37B derived strike drones, a carrier battlegroup could be thousands of miles away from a target in China or Iran and still be able to attack them with impunity.

A possible strategy would be to degrade a country like China’s forces capable to harming carriers with drone strikes, then move in with shorter-ranged manned aircraft. Achieving air superiority over a target country would take longer, but would be just as certain.

Of course China would likely try to counter this new capability on the part of the U.S. Navy by developing its own blue-water navy capable to seeking out and engaging American carrier groups in the mid-ocean. Long-range ballistic missiles would also be useful, but could be countered by ship born ABM systems such as the Aegis.

In any event, the development of carrier-based drone aircraft and other weapons systems would be a further illustration of how the United States tries to maintain its military superiority, by using technology as a force multiplier. If the United States remembers how this works and resists the temptation to cut funding for future weapons systems, it will remain the undisputed superpower for some time to come.

Tests of the drone strike aircraft and the drone tanker will begin on the carrier USS George Washington in 2013.

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