BAE Systems' UXV and Naval Group’s “Ocean Avenger” are Potential Candidates
What is needed is a hybrid warship that can deploy all kinds of unmanned systems, provide long-range air and ship fire support for the land forces, address peer nation challenges, remain present and available daily, and multitask in many warfare areas.
What ship can accomplish all this? The BAE Systems’ 8,000-ton Unmanned Experimental Vessel (UXV)* and Naval Group’s 4,000-ton “Ocean Avenger” Drone Carrier Warship designs are concept ships that were rendered and were never built even though the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and DDG 1000 (Zumwalt destroyers) were. (*UXV is not an unmanned warship, but is crewed by sailors that launch and retrieve unmanned air, surface, and subsurface drone systems).
As the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps test unmanned air, sea, and underwater drones at the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) 21 (held in late April, 2021), no current U.S. warship in service is designed to actually carry, transport, handle, control, launch and retrieve, and maintain all three environmental types of drones. A few of these drones have been used and launched by a few fielded warships; however, not one U.S. warship design exists to launch all three types of drones in significant numbers for combat, recon, patrol, and maritime operations, let alone detach itself for amphibious duties and assault. The Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) is relatively unarmed, and the LPD-17 and LHA amphibious assault ships lack VLS missile tubes and long-range gunfire support.
Is the answer to the U.S. Navy’s future unmanned system fleet already design and rendered? Naval News explores two Drone Carrier Warship designs (half aircraft carrier/half combat warship) in this Opinion-Editorial Analysis.
- The Kratos XQ-58A “Valkyrie” Unmanned Combat Aircraft (UCAV) drone
- The MQ-8 “Fire Scout” Unmanned Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) rotorcraft drone
- The BAE Systems 8,000-ton UXV Drone Carrier Warship
- The Naval Group Class-04-03 4,000-ton “Ocean Avenger” trimaran Drone Carrier Warship
“It starts and ends with the map, and I don’t mean that in an abstract sense. I mean these are massive distances that we’re talking about in INDO-PACOM. We can’t commute to work. We’re just not going to be able to commute to work if things heat up, so we’re going to be relying in Allies and partners to be forward-deployed and have that day-to-day presence in the region.”
Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin). Co-Chair, House National Security Caucus and Member, House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee at USNI/CSIS “The Future of the U.S. Navy” virtual webinar, March 2021
By 2021, the U.S. Navy has implemented a ship building plan dating back to designs created in the 1990s and 2000s, as seen in this “Warships of Tomorrow” Popular Science article. The Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and the stealthy Zumwalt destroyer (DDG 1000) were built to strikingly remarkable resemblances to the artist’s renderings. The CG(X) was discussed by the U.S. Navy, shipbuilding industry, and the Think Tanks, but no mention was made of the UXV Drone Carrier, when at that time in mid-2000s, Artificial Intelligence and drones were just getting started or budding. Is it time for the U.S. Navy to build the UXV Drone Carrier Warship to relieve the U.S. Naval Fleet Forces of using the overtaxed Carrier Strike Groups and Amphibious Ready Groups?
According to 3Wktr.com, “The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier is returning to San Diego Friday afternoon. The ship’s homeport is in Washington State. The crew has been deployed for 321 days. This deployment length is the longest since the Vietnam War.” That statement was dated February 26, 2021.
321 days is ten months, four more months than the usual half-year (or six-month overseas ship deployment). USS Nimitz, the longest aircraft carrier deployment in history, shows how overstressed and “in-demand” the U.S. Navy’s (USN) aircraft carriers are around the world.
A U.S. Navy Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA) or Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) can deploy as a standard light aircraft carrier (standard is six United States Marine Corps (USMC) F-35Bs on board), or as a “Lightning Carrier,” equipped with anywhere from 10 to 20+ F-35Bs as part of an Amphibious Ready Group. However, China and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps know that the range of the F-35B (669 nmi (770 mi, 1,239 km) on internal fuel) places it well within the range of Anti-Ship ballistic missiles such as the Chinese DF-21 fired from a Transporter Erector Launcher (TEL) truck. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) DF-21 has a described range of 1,100 miles (1,770 km). As of mid-2021, existing American manned naval aircraft will always be outranged by the Chinese TEL Anti-Ship missiles as evident in the graphics below.
A Checkered Reality: Issues with the U.S. Navy’s DDG 1000s and the Littoral Combat Ships
Although outside the scope of this Opinion-Editorial Analysis, readers can research how the “Warships of Tomorrow” plan kind of semi-failed to meet actual U.S. Navy expectations once these two ships were actually built and fielded. Briefly:
- The U.S. Navy didn’t use the U.S. Army and NATO-standard 155mm cannon and shells as the foundational basis in the DDG 1000s’ Armored Gun Systems (AGS), thus requiring a specialized AGS GPS extended-range round that cost upwards of $800,000 each. The U.S. Navy has since canceled the AGS shell program and the AGSs currently have no shells to fire. 2021 plans might call for the AGSs’ removal to accommodate large Hypersonic VLS missile cells although this has been unconfirmed.
- The LCSs are only built to Level One survivability and are undergoing upgrades to improve their combat survivability and lethality, including the incorporation of eight launchers of the stealthy 100-nautical mile Naval Strike Missile, adding electronic countermeasures, missile decoys, and adding additional steel.
- The LCSs’ Mission Modules, once considered swappable Plug-and-Play modules, take too long to actually swap out. Hence the U.S. Navy decided to keep the Modules in place with some LCSs carrying Mine Countermeasure Modules (MCM), others Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Modules, and others Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW) Modules.
- Due to weapon and lethality issues, the DDG 1000s (no functioning 155mm AGSs as of 2021 to provide shore bombardment for the U.S. Marines) and LCSs (have no VLS cells for medium to long-range Anti-Air and Anti-Surface Warfare missiles) somewhat fail in their “Deterrence values” as warships.
- Railguns, lasers, and all those “high-tech (energy consuming) researched and developed weapons” didn’t really mature well enough by mid-2021 to be actually implemented into the DDG 1000s and LCSs on a cost-effective basis.
- The time required for an LCS to sweep for mines actually takes longer than an Avenger-class MCM ship because the LCSs relies on a variety of drones that perform single functions. These drones cannot multitask to accomplish the mission of scanning, detecting, locating, and neutralizing the mines so each sweeping mission requires the launching and retrieval of a separate onboard LCS drone to accomplish these tasks.
The U.S. Navy is currently working to remedy these deficiencies by creating Task Forces and studies to address these issues, as stated in the Surface Navy Association 2020 and 2021 Virtual Symposiums.
A New Kind of Warship from a Past Idea: The BAE Systems UXV and the Naval Group “Ocean Avenger”
For speculative opinions and analysis, let’s explore the UCAVs, UAVs, and the Drone Carrier Warship. We’ll refer to the BAE Systems UXV and the Naval Group “Ocean Avenger” as a “Carrier Warship” because they carry VLS cells and a 155mm cannon, so it’s not a true carrier such as the CVN and LHA “flattops.”
Enter the Kratos XQ-58A “Valkyrie” Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV)
The U.S.-made Kratos®’s XQ-58A “Valkyrie” UCAV’s range is unprecedented, flying for 2,128 nmi (2,449 mi, 3,941 km) one way, or 1,275 miles to and from for a round trip, placing it just outside of the PLA’s DF-21C’s range (1,700 km/1,056 miles for the DF-21C and 3,000 km or 1,864 miles for the DF-21D).
The XQ-58A, flying at Mach 0.85, is said to carry a payload of 544 kgs (1,199 pounds) in two internal weapons bays with four hardpoints each (eight hardpoints per XQ-58A). A 1,000-pound (450 kg) warhead can be the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) GBU-32 or GBU-35 bomb for the USN/USMC, or a Paveway laser guided bomb. An AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), weighing in at 483 kg to 497 kg (1,065 to 1,095 lb) and offering a low-altitude release of 22 km (12 nmi) to a high-altitude release of 130 km (70 nmi) might also work. Aerial refueling can be from the unmanned Boeing MQ-25 Stingray drone. Therefore, one Drone Carrier Warship can deliver a 1,000-pound warhead if one XQ-58A UCAV and one MQ-25 UAV refueling drone is embarked, or 2,000-pounds of explosives if two XQ-58As are onboard. More UCAVs embarked means more delivered aerial ordnance tonnage, respectively.
The cheap cost ($2 to $3 million each) of a XQ-58A “Valkyrie” means that these UCAVs are expendable. UCAV tactics and strategies still need to be fleshed out once placed into service; however, a Joint force of U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines, and U.S. Air Force XQ-58As, MQ-25 tankers, and other UAVs could mean an unmanned aerial air force could respond to a crisis before manned airpower reaches the battlespace.
And due to their long ranges, semi-stealthy XQ-58As, if deemed necessary, could be sent on one-way “suicide missions” just to reach and attack important targets 2,400+ miles away. Future stand-off ordnance in the 1,000-pound class could be developed to give the XQ-58A even more standoff fighting distance, as could small UAVs that are dropped from the internal weapons bay.
The XQ-58A could potentially act as a combat fighter also, able to take down enemy fighter combat patrols with volleys of long-range air-to-air missiles (AIM-120Ds), or as a Close Air Support UCAV armed with various precision guided small missiles and smart bombs. XQ-58As could be the U.S. Marine’s best loitering UCAV in the future, providing the constant “Armed Overwatch” support that stealthy manned USMC F-35Bs cannot due to the F-35Bs’ short range.
The Need for the Drone Carrier Warship for the U.S. Navy
“Advantage at Sea provides guidance to the Naval Service for the next decade to prevail across a continuum of competition—composed of interactions with other nations from cooperation to conflict. This strategy emphasizes the following five themes. We must fully leverage the complementary authorities and capabilities of the Naval Service to generate Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. We must strengthen our alliances and partnerships— our key strategic advantage in this long-term strategic competition—and achieve unity of effort. We must operate more assertively to prevail in day-to-day competition as we uphold the rules-based order and deter our competitors from pursuing armed aggression. If our rivals escalate into conflict, becoming our adversaries, we must control the seas to deny their objectives, defeat their forces, protect our homeland, and defend our allies. And, we must boldly modernize the future naval force to maintain credible deterrence and preserve our advantage at sea.”
Advantage at Sea, December 2020
– Signed by the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Kenneth J. Braithwaite
– Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General David C. Berger
– Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral Michael M. Gilday
– Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Karl L. Schultz
“We need to build a [future U.S.] Navy, but a Navy to do what? We need that type of vision and guidance.
“The fact that the United States, they need to be there [around the world to counter peer nation influence]; we need to be in those places. We need to be the ones, or our allies, promoting that type of economic development or infrastructure in these countries [that China is influencing] because when we lose access, we’re not going to get access back.
“Battle 2045: We have three things that we can do: A) We need to build more ships more quickly. B) We need to operate the ships that we have as efficiently as we can. C) And we need to not divest ourselves of platforms when they still have operational life left. …And I think that there are better models that we can deploy the Navy. I mean we get a lot more presence from our Forward Deployed Naval Forces, FDNF.”
Representative Elaine Luria (D-Virginia)
at USNI/CSIS “The Future of the U.S. Navy” virtual webinar, March 2021
“Less a technical one and more of a philosophical one of what is the actual deterrence value of an unmanned system? Are we going to get the same deterrence effect with a large unmanned surface vessel that we’re going to get with a frigate, or a destroyer, or a carrier? I doubt it. I just don’t think that we actually got to the philosophical value of deterrence that we need to understand what we’re doing with these unmanned systems and deterrence is what it’s all about.”
Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin)
at USNI/CSIS “The Future of the U.S. Navy” virtual webinar, March 2021
The Drone Carrier Warship could remedy these doubts and act as the hybrid warship that the future U.S. Navy needs and desires—a vessel that can multitask in various warfare functions:
- Act as a command node, sheepdog, and provide “Armed Overwatch” for the LPD-17s and Light Amphibious Warships (LAWs).
- Provide fire support via gunfire, missiles, potential Hypersonics, and long-range fires from VLS cells and a 155mm cannon independent of frigates, destroyers, and cruisers.
- Provide consistently available and present runways and landing pad for unmanned aircraft, rotorcraft, drones, and a floodable well deck for sea and subsurface vessels independent of carriers, warships, Sea bases, and amphibious ships.
- Provide expanded space for command, medical, dental, gym, facilities, food, Administration, maintenance, services, and logistics for the LAWs and small boats.
- Provide crisis response in-theater closer to hot-spots around the globe.
- Act as a Mothership vessel for future drones such as the MARTAC MANTAS T38 unmanned surface vessel (USV).
- And be small and cheap enough to be built in large quantities.
Would the U.S. Navy and Congress be audacious enough to build the Drone Carrier Warship, considering how the Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) and the three expensive DDG 1000s were semi-successful or semi-failures depending on viewer perspectives? Can the U.S. Navy afford not to, considering how expensive it is to build, operate, maintain, refuel, and service a CVN nuclear powered aircraft carrier? (The USS Gerald R. Ford CVNs cost over $13 billion each, and that doesn’t include working out the “teething problems”). The Landing Helicopter Assaults (LHAs), such as the USS America, cost around $3.5 billion each, and are 844-feet (257 meters) long. The proposed UXV is smaller at 500-feet (152.4 meters), or the size of the U.S. Navy’s upcoming Constellation-class frigate (FFG-62), and that should be the U.S. Navy and Congress’s debate: Should the UXV or “Ocean Avenger” be built larger to at least LHA size to carry a larger unmanned air wing because the U.S Navy needs a dedicated UCAV Drone “flattop” Aircraft Carrier, not a half-flattop warship carrying a 155mm gun, VLS cells, and a few UCAVs? Or should the BAE UXV and Naval Group’s “Ocean Avenger” be built as the designed hybrid warship (4,000 to 8,000 tons respectively) carrying UCAVs, small and cheap enough so that the Navy can afford a larger fleet of these hybrid warships, perhaps numbering 20-40+ to aid in launching drone swarms and facilitate in Multi-Domain Operations (MDO), Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Distributed Lethality (DL), assist in C5ISR and sheepdog the Light Amphibious Warships (LAWs), and conduct multiple vectoring pincer movements in the open ocean? As Representative Elaine Luria (D-VA), Vice Chair, House Armed Services Committee & Member, Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee said at USNI/CSIS’s “The Future of the U.S. Navy,” held virtually in March 2021, “Surge didn’t make up for capacity” when it comes to having a U.S. Navy ship presence in INDO-PACOM and around the world. “Capacity”—the U.S. Navy needs to have a larger ship count to maintain consistent presence and “surging” one to three aircraft carriers in INDO-PACOM can’t make up the difference if the CVNs sail to other parts of the world’s oceans, leaving a void of U.S. ship and aircraft presence in the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) area. The Drone Carrier Warship adds ship, drone, missile, cannon fire, and long-range aircraft presence, available daily.
The America-class LHAs won’t work as dedicated UCAV Drone Aircraft Carriers because the flight deck has to be cleared to launch the USMC F-35Bs that taxi to the stern and then use the entire length of the ship to get airborne (without a ski jump ramp), and the LHAs probably lack the maintenance facilities and space dedicated for UCAVs. The split-V runways of the UXVs allow for the launching of the UCAVs from one or both runways while one runway can be used to land UCAVs. Furthermore, deck space between the runways can be reserved for MQ-8 UAV rotorcraft and other vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drones without getting in the way of UCAV launching and landing operations.
Another Drone Carrier Warship Variant: The Naval Group’s “Ocean Avenger”
At 4,000-tons, Naval Group’s Class-04-C3 “Ocean Avenger” trimaran (three hull) Drone Carrier Warship is half the displacement of the BAE UXV.
Similar in principle to the BAE UXV, the “Ocean Avenger” has two runways, but they’re not split-V, thanks to the three-hull tumblehome design, and instead has one runway per outboard hull. “Ocean Avenger,” however, does not have a floodable well deck for launching and retrieving unmanned surface vessels and underwater vessel drones (USVs and UUVs). This concept warship design uses conventional shafts and propellers, not high-powered waterjets as the LCSs.
“Ocean Avenger” does seem to possess Close-in Weapon Systems (CIWS) as the graphics show autocannons or CIWS can be positioned at the four corners of the ship for better all-around protection. “Ocean Avenger” also has a rotorcraft/UCAV hangar into the main superstructure behind the bridge, a design feature that the BAE UXV lacks. The Naval Group design does not appear to have any elevators to an interior hull hangar.
Unveiled by the French Shipbuilder during at the Euronaval 2018 show alongside other concept ships, “Ocean Avenger” carries the following:
- Multipurpose launchers (unspecified, but these can be 20-32 VLS cells)
- Electric railguns (most likely will be removed if built as this energy-hungry technology hasn’t matured enough to fit cost-effectively in small warship designs)
- Laser weapons (a possibility, depending in power consumption and laser miniaturization)
- Directed Energy Weapons (a possibility, depending in power consumption and laser miniaturization)
- Digital Combat Bridge (already exists in DDG 1000s with television screens and cameras acting as bridge wing lookouts)
- Antifouling (to combat marine organisms from growing on the hull)
- Software for seakeeping
- Composite materials (to reduce rust and for stealth radar low-signature purposes)
- UxV (for operating Unmanned Experimental Vessel or Vehicles)
- Integrated topside (all decks and systems are interconnected in the trimaran design)
- Invisible ship (angled stealth characteristics, low profile and signatures)
- Cybersecurity (secure communications, networking, sensors, and datalinks to the drones and to outside forces)
“Ocean Avenger’s” purpose is designed for:
- A Smart Ship (hardware and software that are compatible and “talk to” each other)
- Smart Naval Forces (Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) allows for the networking of several “Ocean Avengers” to act as a fleet)
- Smart Energy (regulated and monitored power sources and output)
- An Invulnerable ship (offensive/defensive armament, electronic warfare, missile jammers and decoys mean that “Ocean Avenger” does not require dedicated warship escorts as this Drone Carrier Warship can protect and defend itself).
- Smart Availability (with a small unmanned air force and the guns and missiles carried in its design, “Ocean Avenger” can be “on call” for flexible crisis response and U.S. Marine fire support that no other Navy warship can provide).
- Strike (Missions that require gun, missile, or air strikes)
- Point (Close-in defense from lasers, autocannons, (possible small railguns), machine guns, and Directed Energy Weapons)
- Seakeeping and survivability (the trimaran hull allows for outer protection from the main hull and Antifouling prolongs hull life)
- C5ISR (allows for the gathering, analysis, and interconnectivity to process data from all sensors and make important tactical battlespace decisions from commanders).
A Recipe for a Successful U.S. Navy Drone Carrier Warship
In order to create a successful Drone Carrier Warship, the U.S. Navy should implement these requirements dependent on vessel size, purpose, mission parameters, cost, deterrence, effectiveness, and future growth.
- MQ-8Bs and Cs outfitted to provide ASW, MCM, limited AAW, and ASuW for the USMC and the Navy. These MQ-8 packages could include sonobuoys, lightweight (miniature) torpedoes, 2.75” APKWS rockets, SPIKE NLOS/Longbow Hellfire missiles, COBRA MCM, gun pods, and Stinger Short-ranged Air-Defense (SHORAD) missiles.
- Optional: Adding unmanned tankers such as the Boeing MQ-25 to substitute for one or two XQ-58s to provide aerial tanking to manned and unmanned aircraft.
- A C5ISR and Combat Information Center room separate from the Drone Command Console Center (DC3).
- Close-in weapons systems (CIWS) in the form of 20mm Phalanx CIWS, RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM), laser turrets, JQL/JAGM, or SeaRAM. Due to the UXV’s and “Ocean Avenger’s” stealthy design, these CIWS might not be incorporated if they affect stealth signature profile. If not, then the UXV and “Ocean Avenger” should have countermeasures in the form of Electronic Warfare and jamming, and drone swarms to fly out and intercept incoming missiles. (The triangular pedestal between the UXV’s two vertically angled superstructures could house crisscrossing RIM-116 RAM tubes angled outwards whereas JQL/JAGM launchers can be inserted between the RIM-116 tubes and fire from the pedestal’s top).
- A 20 or 32-cell “Strike-Length” VLS that fires ASROC, Tomahawk, Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM), Standard missiles, Naval Strike Missiles, and Long-ranged Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASMs). Some UXVs and “Ocean Avengers” could also be designed with larger VLS cells for Hypersonic missiles for a High-Low cost VLS cell missile mix.
- A U.S. Army’s M1299 155mm Extended Ranged Cannon Artillery (ERCA) howitzer in turret, corrosion protected, and using the U.S. Army’s autoloader and automated shell and powder magazine to provide precision shore bombardment. The key is to use NATO Army-standard 155mm shells.
- A smart 155mm autoloading magazine that can take a variety of NATO-standard 155mm shells, including smoke, White Phosphorus, High-Explosive Dual Purpose, GPS rocket-assisted projectiles (RAP), Armor-piercing rounds, GPS RAP Glider warhead shells, illumination, canister shot, flechette, etc.;
- A Nixie Anti-torpedo system or future Anti-torpedo torpedo launchers.
- A well deck for launching RHIBs, unmanned surface vessels, unmanned underwater vessels, remote operated vehicles, swimmers and divers, and small hovercrafts for tactical firepower, rescue, recovery, transport, C4ISR, patrols, medical evacuation, and logistics. (The Naval Group design lacks a well deck and one doesn’t need to be designed in). An adequate self-protective detail of U.S. Marines for shipboard security.
- Interior hardened armories for smart missiles, bombs, mines, miniature torpedoes, and air-to-air weapons with rapid-elevators to the flight deck and to the well deck.
- A gallery and Mess Hall, additional berthing, small gym, dental, barber, ship’s shop, library, and a medical bay to provide hot meals and expanded care for the LAW-embarked Marines. The UXV can act as a temporary “Marine Mothership” to cruising LAWs in the INDO-PACOM region that lend one-third (25 Marines) out of the LAW’s 75 Marines for a temporary hot meal and additional care per rotating Rest and Relief shift during the LAWs 30-day patrols of the INDO-PACOM region. This will help boost Marine morale and health, and harks back to the days of World War Two where the UXV acts as a tender compared to using the larger, complex, scarce and expensive LPD-17s.
- Flight Deck Operations Room facing the stern of the ship and acting as Air Traffic Controller.
- Lifeboats and rescue boats;
- An interior hardened, separate, and secure Drone Console Command Center (DC3) room with 20-30 individual consoles to control more than the four aerial drones embarked aboard the UXV. DC3 functions as a hardened Command node center to coordinate drone swarms on sea, below the water, and in the air. The DC3 should be a separate room from the CIC, perhaps as a smaller second story room overlooking the main CIC as in the DDG 1000s.
- A sonar dome at the bow and optional towed sonar array.
- Optional berthing and amenities for SEALs and special forces detachments;
- The optional Moon Pool at the belly of the ship could be deleted because the Moon Pool might affect hull integrity and prove too complex compared to a standard stern well deck.
- Interior hangar and workshops for UCAV and UAV maintenance (can the hangar hide a USMC HiMARS, brought up to the flight deck to fire land attack or Anti-ship missiles?);
- Elevators to and from the hangar to the flight deck;
- Proven UCAV arresting gear (and if necessary, EMALs catapults);
- Chaff and Anti-Missile decoys for the UXV;
- Machine guns mounts along the perimeter for self-protection, either manual or remotely operated;
- Steel and Kevlar protection over vital spaces and compartments;
- A XQ-58A jet engine test stand venting jet exhaust to the outside similar to the CVN;
- Fire suppression and armored blast protection for the drone aviation fuel and ordnance;
- Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical decontamination features for personnel, Marines, flight deck, and drones;
- Incorporation of robotics and automation systems;
- Proven engines and generators for future growth;
- 28-30+ kts speed (preferably over 30+ kts);
- Aircraft fire extinguishing agents and associated vehicles;
- Small Mission Module Bay by the well deck for cargo and unmanned surface and subsurface drone modifications and stacking of additional inflatable boats;
- Removal portals and hatches for lookouts and Close-Quarters Protection (similar to the DDG 1000s);
- Exterior cameras and telescopes for situational awareness in a stealth superstructure;
- A garage behind the aft superstructure to house the UAV firefighting vehicles, tow trucks, carts, cranes, and forklifts (not shown in the UXV design).
- One or two Mk 38 MOD 3 25mm or Mk46 30mm autocannon turret(s) over the optional UXV garage (similar to the DDG 1000 setup) for rear area protection.
- Some Drone Carrier Warship hulls could carry a separate and dedicated Air Warfare Officer Command Center to complement the aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers.
The Drone Carrier Warship design could be used by NATO and allied RIMPAC navies with the host nation providing their own indigenous UCAVs, drones, unmanned vessels, ship weapons, and design modifications. This would alleviate the need and pursuit for large expensive “flattop” carriers and air wings that few foreign navies are able and willing to fund, build, invest, operate, and maintain.
Drone Carrier Warship Scenario:
A Drone Carrier Warship (DCW) stationed somewhere in the western Pacific Ocean region can launch two stealthy XQ-58As from 2,300 miles away, have them drop their ordnance over land, and then fly and land on a DCW sailing somewhere in the Indian Ocean while that Indian Ocean DCW does the same thing, having its two XQ-58As fly towards their land targets and then fly out to land on the Pacific Ocean DCW. (We will just assume that each DCW carries two available XQ-58s. If the each DCW carries four UCAVs, the aerial firepower will be even greater).
Now imagine a U.S. Navy Task Force comprising of four DCWs sailing in the Pacific and four DCWs sailing in the Indian Ocean, each DCW carrying two XQ-58As. Thus, eight DCWs provide a total of sixteen XQ-58As able to deliver sixteen 1,000-pound bombs against sixteen different land targets without the need for LHAs’ or CVNs’ airpower. Or, sixteen XQ-58As, each one having eight internal hardpoints, can attack 80 separate targets with 80 Small Diameter Bombs (SDB II, also known as the GBU-53/B “Stormbreaker”) since each GBU-53 weighs 204 lb (93 kg) and the XQ-58A can carry 544 kgs (1,199 pounds), or five SDB IIs in each XQ-58A (1,020 lbs total) with about 179 lb to spare. The GBU-53 has a decent standoff range of 69 miles (110 km) against stationary targets and 45 miles (72 km) against moving targets. (If the eight DCWs carry four XQ-58s each, that would be 160 SDB IIs, or thirty-two 1,000-pound JDAMs that can be independently targeted. The flight deck may be able to house more UCAVs at the expense of UAV rotorcrafts at their landing spots).
This mini-UCAV DCW naval air force could make a striking difference in future naval operations, well-protected by AEGIS DDG-51 destroyers, FFG(X) frigates, and ASW rotorcraft, not to mention having VLS cells for its own long-rang defense and offensive attack.
If the DCW warship design functions as advertised, and the DCW uses the modified corrosion-resistant U.S. Army’s M1299 155mm ERCA cannon that can fire 10 rounds-per-minute with an autoloader, four DCWs working together can fire 40 Extended-range GPS-guided 155mm shells per minute from 43-62 miles (70-100 km) away and provide the explosive precision shore bombardment punch for fraction of the cost of one custom $800,000 shell that was canceled for the DDG 1000 Zumwalts. The 155mm ERCA cannon onboard the DCW might be able to substitute for the lack of USMC M1A1 tank firepower during amphibious assaults.
A new large logistics tender ship would sail with each Drone Carrier Warship Ocean Task Force and the tender’s large towering deck crane would replace any DCW’s XQ-58As that get shot down because the XQ-58A can fit inside a standard-sized shipping container for transport. The XQ-58As stored in shipping containers could even be lifted onto the decks of the DCWs if the U.S. Navy decides to acquire the new manned CH-53K “King Stallion” as a vertical replenishment helicopter.
Again, note that this imaginary scenario is for a DCW in the 500-foot class (152.4 meters), and not for a Drone “flattop” Carrier around 800 (243 meters) to 1,000 feet (304 meters) long with interior hull aircraft hangars and elevators. If the U.S. Navy decided to build a dedicated Drone Carrier that loosely resembles the LHA or CVNs for a much larger UCAV and UAV air wing, then the DCW split-V and trimaran runway warship design would not qualify.
Conclusion: UXVs and/or “Ocean Avenger” Could Aid the Future U.S. Navy and Deter by Multitasking
The deterrence value of a High-Low mix of Drone Carrier Warships (if both the UXV and “Ocean Avenger were built) would be dramatic in the INDO-PACOM region and would provide the unmanned systems, the 155mm AGS shore battery fire support, the missile protection, and the Anti-Mine and Anti-Submarine systems that the DDG 1000s and LCSs have partially failed to deliver. The DCW could be the de facto ship that bridges and solves many of the U.S. Navy’s issues revolving around the lack of long-range gunfire support for the U.S. Marines and the lack of long-range offensive armament on the poorly-armed LAWs, LPDs, and LCSs.
By providing consistently available overwatch in the air, on the water, and below the sea from unmanned systems, moderately-armed and faster DCWs would make the battlespace much safer for the deployments of the poorly-armed and slow Light Amphibious Warships (LAWs) compared to using the poor-armed LPD-17s and the unarmed Expeditionary Sea Base (ESBs) as Mothership LAW sheepdogs. The Drone Carrier Warship’s VLS cells and the 155mm ERCA would defeat targets that threaten the U.S. Marines as they come ashore. Currently, the U.S. Navy lacks a plan as to who, what, where, and how to provide offensive and defensive support to the poorly-armed LAWs sailing in the INDO-PACOM region outside of the customary expensive U.S. Navy warships. Having two or more XQ-58 UCAVs on station daily could lessen the need for LHA F-35Bs and CVN F-35Cs as the central aerial system used for A2/AD breaching, keeping the expensive and scarce stealthy F-35s further back from the fight. More XQ-58As and/or MQ-8s can be carried onboard and launched in times of crisis, and the DCW might even be able to launch and land the two-seat propeller “Armed Overwatch” Light Attack Plane that the U.S. Special Operations Command wants, or operate U.S. Marine or special forces helicopters and tiltrotors.
For roughly the size of a U.S. Navy Constellation-class FFG-62 FREMM-modified frigate, the Drone Carrier Warship can offer a versatile firepower mix unapparelled and unmatched in a U.S. Navy warship design. Able to operate independently or in groups, the UXVs will have cruising staying power and perform as “Crisis Responders” instead of as dedicated “flattops” responding to global crises as the LHAs and CVNs often do, these flattops having to sail around the world on deployment.
U.S. Navy Drone Carrier Warships would act as the Motherships for many drone systems in the INDO-PACOM region and around the world, able to counter drone swarms, check militia fishing boats, provide “Armed Overwatch,” conduct limited Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR), perform limited Airborne Warning and Command, sheepdog the smaller U.S. Navy ships and boats, escort convoys, and provide the muscle and teeth outside of the CVNs and LHA Strike Groups that have to sail around the world on deployments.
Drone mixes and future systems will be left to the imaginations of the Fleet Force Commanders and Naval strategists, but they will have a ship that can transport, launch, command, gather data, analyze, and retrieve these remote-piloted systems, and sit in a warship that can protect itself.
These hybrid warship designs, even dating back years to decades, are unique in that they have two unimpeded runways for UCAV operations. The drone software, A.I., 155mm ERCA; autoloading, robotics, and automation; and Hypersonic technology is now maturing in the 2020s. The U.S. Navy could be seeing their future warship force by reengaging some past concepts and revising some artist’s renderings that date back many years.
The time for the Drone Carrier Warship concept to become a reality may be in the 2020s and the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps should definitely consider studying and perhaps revitalizing the BAE UXV split-V or the Naval Group two-runway trimaran hybrid warship concepts.