Sunday, 1 September 2013

August 2013 Notes: UAVs = Cruise Missiles = UAVs… what does the future look like for Navies?

Reason for writing: the world of technology is changing and it seemed to be a good place to start looking at unmanned systems.

Key Words/Phrases:

·         NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – Britain’s principle strategic alliance,

·         Type 26 Global Combat Ship: no not a British version of the USN’s Littoral Combat Ship, but a Frigate successor to the Type 22 class

·         TLAM: Tactical Land Attack Missile more commonly called a Cruise missile

·         SSM: Surface to Surface Missile

·         SAM: Surface to Air Missile

·         ASM: Anti-Submarine Missile

·         UCAV: Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, in this work is mainly used to refer to the   X-47 - The currently under development, but conducting carrier deck operations and flying, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, the X-47 is the future of stealth strike & reconnaissance; hence there is no coincidence that it looks like a mini B-2 bomber.

·         NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – Britain’s principle strategic alliance,

·         Surface Combatants: Corvettes, Frigates, Destroyers and Cruisers…the back bone of any navy these are the vessels which provide the presence/patrolling in peace, the task group fire power in war time and are essential to pretty much everything a fleet can be required by its government to do – sometimes is divided into Minor & Major surface combatants with the size split at ~5000tons. 

·         Aircraft Carrier: as defined by a paraphrasing of Admiral Caspar John (1st Sea Lord) -

o   An air field operating anything from thirty sixty to eighty aircraft; with the fuel, stores, fire-fighting equipment and so on which go with it.

o   A couple of batteries of heavy anti-aircraft defences with ammunition and control gear.

o   A minor Battersea Power Station.

o   A big radio transmitting and receiving station.

o   The radar, communications and other ancillaries equivalent to an RAF fighter sector controller.

o   Consider all the personnel (about two thousand) and accommodation wanted for these functions, then issue them all with three month’s provisions

o   Now put the whole lot inside a metal box eight hundred feet long by ninety feet wide, by about ninety feet high, make the box self-propelled and operate aircraft from the top of the lid.

o   There is your Aircraft Carrier.”[1]

·         LPH: Landing Platform Helicopter – like an aircraft carrier in terms of having a large flight deck/island configuration, but doesn’t carry fighter aircraft and concentrates on troop transport.

·         LHA: Landing Platform Helicopter/Attack – basically an LPH but with the ability to operate fighter aircraft of the VSTOL type.

·         LHD: aviation wise similar to an LHA usually, but as well as flight deck it also has a stern ‘dock’ that landing craft can operate out of allowing troops & heavy equipment to be sent ashore

·         Aviation ship: generic term used to cover any vessel where the primary method of functioning within it’s role is the support of aviation, i.e. aircraft carrier, LHA or LHD.

·         Radar Horizon = the distance at which an aircraft/ship can be detected on or traveling as close as makes no difference to the surface of the earth =  (2xHx(4Re/3)) [2]

o   The radius of the Earth used is 20,925,524.9ft, and is represented by Re.

o   Height of the radar above the surface is represented by H.

o   While every attempt is made to make the figures given as accurate as possible they are only general guides as there are some factors such as the transmitting radar's power, pulse length and Pulse Repetition Frequency, PRF, and the target echoing area are either protected information or unknown.

·         Carrier Strike: strike aircraft launching from carriers

·         ASW: Anti-Submarine Warfare

·         AEW: Airborne Early Warning – flying radar, what the RN was missing in the Falklands war, and the one change which would have made a big difference to every operation.

·         Suppression of Enemy Air Defences: otherwise called SEAD, this is a primary Day 1 task, and if a force is not capable of carrying it out then the country that deploys it does not possess an expeditionary capability.

·         ‘Land Strike’: strike aircraft flying from airbases

·         Fleet Air Defence: this is a layered thing like an onion[3], the aircraft from the carrier provide the outermost layer air defence – if an attack can be stopped at the ranges of this it represents by far the safest course of action.

·         Close Air Support (sometimes called Combat Air Support): it’s when aircraft act as artillery and provide direct fire in support of ground forces.

·         UAV: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

·         Rotary Wing: Helicopter

·         Fixed Wing: planes

·         Tilt Rotor: aircraft like V-22 Osprey where they can fly as either fixed wing or helicopter depending upon the ‘attitude’ of the engines.



Automation is no longer coming it’s here; unmanned aviation has become a constant and pervasive feature of modern, whilst cruise missiles are seeming to have become an almost ubiquitous item with every country seemingly wishing to announce itself by developing its own. However, some of the developments around these systems present a problem for those seeking to evaluate programs and divine enough of the likely future to make smart decisions on procurement in these stringent times.

The main problem is one of similarity; with cruise missiles now developing loitering capability and some UAVs carrying a ‘suicide’ capability the differences between them are seemingly starting to narrow; even some cruise missiles now carry multiple warheads, meaning that distinction is no longer really valid. Therefore when deciding between the two, the definition that has to be worked to is: a cruise missile is that which is planned to be used & expended and UAV is that which is planned to be used & reused.

The use of cruise missiles and UAVs are now ubiquitous in modern warfare, although they haven’t been the public conscious for that long. The Cruise Missiles came of age in the public eye during the 1991 Gulf War, where 290 were launched/ 242 hit their targets[4]: since then it has become the benchmark by which cruise missiles are measured, whilst it sub-sonic, it has a variety of warheads/versions available, and Block II generation had a range of 1,350nmi/2,500km[5] (in comparison the range of Block IV is 700nmi/1,300km[6]). In comparison to the use of the Tomahawk other cruise missiles have been used almost sparingly; perhaps a result of the range of platforms it works, but also more than likely due to the countries which use it and their approach to warfare.

The 1991 Gulf War also saw the first major use of UAVs, although on a less visible scale; the RQ-2 Pioneer UAVs operated from the US Navy’s Iowa class battleships to provide those ships with targeting data for their main guns during the conflict[7]. Of course since then UAVs have accelerated rapidly, to the point where they are taking off from & landing on aircraft carriers (Northrop Grumman X-47B[8]), some have been miniaturised to the point they serve the individual infantryman (Prox Dynamics AS Black Hornet Nano[9]), and traverse the world in single flights (Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk[10]); let alone being utilised to a growing extent in conflicts all over that world (General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper[11]). 

The trouble for navies is how are these going to be used in the future? A recently it has been postulated by some that all ships are aircraft carriers now, whilst this is not true in anything more than the broadest sense (carrying a helicopter and/or a couple of small UAVs does not an aircraft carrier make): there is a change taking place, not a revolution but an evolution, the range of engagement of individual vessels is increasing. When Roman & Greek ships fought, their engagement range was limited to that of bows & arrows, by the time of Nelson it was still limited visual range but the ordinance that was being thrown was far weightier; it was not until the aircraft carrier came of age that a true beyond visual range engagement capability was available. Now with UAVs and long range missiles the range of engagement of a warship is far in excess of that dictated by the Mk.1 Eyeball. The trouble is for all this potential to be in a warship, it has to be big… there is no point having the ability to launch one cruise missile such a vessel would be woefully limited in its operational potential.

Now with the growth in UAVs and cruise missiles reaching a level of development which means they can now feed off each other, surface combatants now have the ability to monitor, locate and strike without ever coming within 500miles of the target; increasing the area an enemy needs to monitor by over 1700x[12]. Of this increases safety of the crew, and is an effect magnifier if not a force multiplier[13]. But for this to happen it requires joined up thinking in the planning stage, with follow through in the building and operating stages; designing the Type 45 Area Air Defence Destroyers (AADs) with the capacity for a Mk 41 VLS that could launch Tomahawk, SM-3s[14] or Asters is not the same as actually fitting it with it[15]. The same as whilst the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle UAV is a step in the right direction, each escort would need to carry multiple (at least three) to be able to maintain a permanent over watch; furthermore ScanEagle is a limited function UAV, it’s capable of providing infra-red video surveillance[16] only. A problem accentuated by the limitations of it’s launch/recovery system; it’s launched using a pneumatic catapult, but recovered via net, not a sensible system if it was carrying weapons or very sensitive instruments.  However, as a cheap surveillance tool they’re excellent so are still useful. There is though is another option, which in fact the USN is already proceeding at pace with it, rotary wing UAVs or unmanned helicopters. The MQ-8 Fire Scout has been developed as a multi-role platform, it carries sensors to enable it’s ship to mount beyond visual range strikes, it can also carry its own weapons, and be used as a logistical support unit ferrying loads[17]. It is not though a panacea, and therefore perhaps another similarity will emerge between cruise missiles and UAVs, multiple types will be carried; cheap & cheerful surveillance tools and more costly multi-role capability extending units as well – rather like many ships carry both SSM and TLAM systems.

Key Points:

·         Missiles

Figure 1. A Royal Navy Submarine launched Tomahawk TLAM in flight[18]

o   New TLAM

§  The replacement for the Tomahawk has big shoes to fill, not because the Tomahawk is particularly spectacular (although certainly very capable) system, but because it has achieved such a status that any successor will have to be not only very good, but faultless upon service entry otherwise it will face colossal criticism and be trumpeted as a failure, no matter what the reality. The biggest problem though is designing for forty+ years, the Tomahawk by the time it leaves service (probably in 2020s) will have done that, and is still a capable system. The current program hoping to answer these questions is the Cruise Missile XR (Extended Rang), and despite the rather childlike desire to stick an X in its name it looks good; it will be heavier (2.2 tons), have a longer range (1,000nautical miles + /2,000 Km+), and a larger (1 ton) warhead. It will also be of course stealthier (the new buzz requirement) thanks to the use of new materials and design practices; and will make use of a combination of guidance and targeting systems to improve it’s chances of successful penetration of enemy air space. Price wise will be the problem, as with 6,000 Tomahawks providing a guideline on how many might have to be bought, a cost of 3x as much is going to probably hit rate of introduction hard[19].

Figure 2. One of the Royal Navy's 13 Type 23 Frigates, HMS Montrose, firing a Harpoon SSM[20]

o   New SSM

§  There hasn’t been a really new purpose designed SSM since the Harpoon which entered service in 1977 and the Exocet which had entered service four years earlier in 1973. These are vital weapon systems and they are out of date, and just as important as the longer range TLAMs; in the age where naval air and stealthy subs are seeming to take all the anti-surface missions it might seem strange, but ships need the ability to engage other ships – because sometimes they will be on their own (a problem especially as fleets have grown smaller), and sometimes events will conspire that they are the only ones who can do it. Therefore it’s not surprising that successor is being developed, in the US the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has lead the way, by developing the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM)[21]. It began with two options, a high risk but potentially high reward ramjet-powered supersonic missile capable of setting the world on fire with it’s new technologies, this was LRASM-B; and DARPA, the agency which gave the world the internet, decided to focus on the safer option. The LRASM-A is being developed by Lockheed Martin, the makers of the F-35, and is being based on their already in existence, in service stealthy, subsonic, turbofan-powered AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missile – to be correct its based on the AGM-158B or Extended Range (ER – no pointless X) version. This version will double the AGM-158 JASSM’s range to over 500 miles/434 nautical miles…there is a problem though with this, in that whilst the TLAM market has few contenders, there are a range of options available for SSM replacements, Boeing for example is producing a new stealth harpoon[22], and also make the Joint Stand Off Weapon – Extended Range (JSOW-ER)[23]. Further to this there is the possibility that the programs of LRASM & Cruise Missile XR could be combined, although that would mean a program replacing around about 13,000missiles.

Figure 3. AN X-47b aboard the USS Truman[24]

o   Competition from UAVs[25]

§  Is not as big as some think, the reasons being these missiles can be used by UAVs, certainly the smaller SSM, and perhaps with the UCAVs such as the X-47B bringing back the potential of strategic strike aircraft being part of an Aircraft Carrier’s air group, even the new TLAM would be able to be deployed. Finally, UAVs as more is expected from them, as more redundancy & reliability is built into them will get more expensive, but also more useful – this means the value of sacrificing them will be higher, whereas missiles are there to be sacrificed. UAV’s are not meant to be sacrificed, they’re utility is directly related to the fact they are re-usable. This is not to say that the balance might shift between the two system sets, but like most technology in warfare one will not erase the other; there will ‘merely’ be evolution.  

·         UAVs

o   AEW

§  UAVs could offer a unique capability where Airborne Early Warning is concerned, unencumbered by the need for a pressurised cabin to go to high altitude they really do offer individual ships the chance to really ‘see’ all around them. Further to this is the cost, numbers and safety of personnel advantages are clear… the AEW is the big, necessary, squawking siren of the battlefield – the number one target, and the surely the most perfect role for a UAV. It terms of numbers, UAVs are cheaper and as a rule smaller than the helicopters/planes used as AEW aircraft at the moment, they would also need to carry less equipment as the actual control could be done from the ship (which has all the appropriate facilities already) so it actually needs to take up less weight of equipment.[26]  

o   Reconnaissance/Over-watch

§  Modern warfare is about information, it’s about finding out what is going on around you and making sure you keep up to date on what’s going on after it’s been found. This is a role which UAVs have already to a large extent made their own, and is arguably the reason why the ScanEagle is proving so popular, because this is what it does.

o   Communications

§  Satellites are not as secure/cost effect as they once were, ASAT weapons are proliferating[27] and some countries have (part) privatised or reduced their number of satellites; making secure tactical/theatre communication a premium. There are many attachment systems now coming available, and soon such a role might well be combined with other functions to provide a one stop electronic support aircraft (i.e. radar and communications). Furthermore the development in laser based communications means that such a system[28], could make task group/force communications for all intents and purposes un-interceptable by enemy systems; with the extra benefit of the satellite communication systems that UAVs are usually fitted with anyway being able to be used to relay communications to the national headquarters/back home without having to turn on the ship’s own transmitters. 

Figure 4. UAVs which look very similar to the MQ-8 Fire Scout acting as communication relays[29]

o   Persistent Strike/Combat Air Support/Helicopter Escort 

§  Persistent Strike is one of the phrases which UAVs have given depth to, loitering on station for hours without risk of pilot fatigue leading to a crash or needing a large enough aircraft to carry multiple crews. Combat Air Support is not a new mission, and whilst the relative benefits of Unmanned vs Manned for the role is currently still open for debate[30], basically though it’s sensors & safety of UAVs vs the luck, moral and operational reliability of manned[31]. Helicopter escort is something deployed navies have to think about, with the proliferation of man portable SAMs, using helicopters to transport personnel without providing them with some sort of cover is becoming increasingly dangerous.

Figure 5. K-Max, two of which are in service with the USMC in Afghanistan proving their worth[32]

o   Logistics

§  Helicopters are used to help with re-supply at sea, UAVs have just as much capability; in fact more so, whilst flying with passengers might not be a likelihood in the immediate future, there is no reason why the USN’s future Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) aircraft could not routinely fly missions with just stores & spares aboard[33]. It’s not just about ship re-supply though, it’s also about ship-to-shore manoeuvres, supplying the troops ashore with the equipment they need, UAVs do not get tired, they don’t get scared, whilst it will be a fine balance between their roles; supplying the troops ashore will be a key force enabler for maximising capability… especially in smaller operations, such as raids where there might not be aviation ship loaded with helicopters available.

Points of Interest:

·         First use of V1, arguably the first cruise missile was on the 13 June 1944

·         First use of Tomahawk missile in anger took place January 17, 1991, when USS San Jacinto, a Ticonderoga class cruiser, launched the opening salvo of desert storm.

·         First use of a remote control weapon was by the Luftwaffe when they used the Fritz-X on 21 July 1943 during a raid on Augusta harbour in Sicily

·         First use of a UAV is a debatable topic, there were attempts made in 1916, but in reality it’s sometime in the 1960s after Gary Powers had the accident with his U-2,that they start to become the systems that would be recognised by current standards as UAVs.

·         Whilst they are often associated with submarines, it is surface ships which are the key to their operability, the RN has been strange though is that it has neither fitted ships nor subs with a VLS system to launch them – instead carrying the missiles in place of torpedo’s and firing them from tubes, in contrast the USN:

“Although the number of ships (including attack submarines) capable of firing the Tomahawk grew only slightly--from 112 to 119--between 1991 and 1996, the Navy's overall ability to fire these land-attack missiles has grown considerably. This is because a greater number of the ships capable of firing the missile are now surface ships and surface ships are able to carry more Tomahawks than submarines. As of the beginning of 1996 the US Navy had 140 Tomahawk-capable ships with 6,266 launchers), of which there are 72 SSN's (696 launchers) and 70 surface ships (5,570 launchers). There were over 4,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles in the inventory in 1996.”[34]

Today the number is even larger, despite now having only 53 SSNs (50 boats have 12 launchers for a total of 600, the Seawolf class uses the British style torpedo tube launch), they also have 4 SSGNs (616 launchers), and only 84 surface ships (8,510 launchers split between the 21 Arleigh Burke Flight I, 90, the 7 Flight II, 96 & the 34 Flight IIA, 96 and the 22 Ticonderoga class, 122) the USN now has a total launcher capability of up to 9,726 – although launchers in surface ships also provide for SAMs and ASMs, so it’s more limited than that, it still represents a spectacular capability.



Missiles and UAVs are so similar in so many ways, the longer the range they operate the more self-sufficient their command coding and sensors need to be; the more human intervention has to be minimalized. However, it’s the differences which will define them and their future; no they are not going to turn every warship into an aircraft carrier, although they are if properly employed going to bestow some of the capabilities that have here-to-fore been the property of aircraft carriers. As far as the replacement missiles are concerned it all depends upon the programs that are pursued, whether in light of the cuts experienced many NATO countries the replacement program becomes a joint multi-nation effort is something which could be attractive, as unlike fighter aircraft, missiles with their more limited functions and more standardised requirements make ideal candidates for such programs.

The future looks good, but it’s going to be tough; a march has been stolen by other countries in the field of cruise missiles and anti-ship systems, and it is difficult in times of financial stringency to muster the resolve necessary to push forward a project. However, it has to be done, if a new system is needed in 2020s[35], then development must start now; the UAVs are fine, so much work is being done already on them that they are set in many ways for the next 30 years; missiles though are just as important and they have been allowed to slip, something which must change.

Further Reading:

[1] (John 1987, 162-3)
[2] (Varshney 2002, Wolff 2011)
[6] (21/08/2013) / Still a respectable range when considering that comparatively more recently development (service entry was in 2006) Brahmos cruise missile developed by India & Russia, has a range of 500km – but is capable of Mach 3 at sea skimming heights (as low as 3-4m) (21/08/2013)
[7] (22/08/2013) - although the RN has in 2013 just brought into service it’s first UAV to do a similar role, (22/08/2013) 
[12] Theoretical strike/monitor range (∏5002 = 785,398.2nm2 )dived by visual range (∏122 = 452.4nm2) = 1736
[13] it can still only be in one place at a time, and a greater range is excellent but when it runs out of missiles, then saying it’s 6x better than it’s predecessor so we only built half as many is not going to make anyone feel anywhere near as good as if there’s a second ship of equivalent capability available nearby
[26] Put up this month (August/September 2013) will be another set of notes on AEW, for more information please look to it.
[30] This debate is gone into more detail in this paper on the Auxiliary Combat Aircraft paper:, but from a British Naval Perspective at the moment the options would be limited to Rotary UAVs.  
[31] UAVs, even the best designs are still crashing, sometimes due to pilot error, but also due to random coding/communication problems.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thankyou for taking the time to comment, I endeavour to reply to every comment that I can within the constraints of time