The aircraft carrier is perhaps the most powerful symbol of the U.S. military and a formidable weapon for projecting American might abroad, and yet the Navy is about to make a choice that will make it less relevant for future wars.
In just a few days, the Navy will begin specifying requirements for a new unmanned carrier-launched combat aircraft, called UCLASS -- the Navy's first operational program for an unmanned combat aircraft, or "drone," designed and built to operate from an aircraft carrier. The Navy faces a stark choice: procure a non-stealthy loitering drone like the land-based Predator, or a stealthy penetrating drone like the X-47B unmanned carrier demonstrator. If the aircraft carrier is to stay relevant in future conflicts, it will need a stealthy penetrating drone to fly inside advanced enemy air defenses, where non-stealthy aircraft like today's Predator arevulnerable. All indications are that the Navy is set to choose a non-stealthy version, which will severely limit the carrier's usefulness in future conflicts.
U.S. aircraft carriers can move across the seas today virtually unchallenged by other nations' militaries, but that is changing fast. Anti-ship ballistic missiles like China's DF-21D can threaten U.S. aircraft carriers beyond 800 nautical miles. This is a major problem as theunrefueled range of the carrier's current aircraft is only 500-650 nautical miles, meaning that it would need to expose itself to salvos of ballistic missiles in order to launch its aircraft. This trend will only get worse as anti-ship missiles gain longer range and greater precision, and proliferate in greater numbers.
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