Extending the range of Naval aircraft will protect the carriers
Along with a new air superiority fighter, the United States Navy must develop a new long-range unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) to counter rapidly emerging anti-access/area-denial threats, particularly in the Western Pacific. The Navy would also have to develop another separate unmanned aircraft for the aerial refueling tanker role. In a new report commissioned by the U.S. Navy, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments lays out the case for developing such capabilities.This sounds like an argument for the X-47B, or something similar to it. It would allow the carrier to laughter out of the danger zone of carrier killer missiles and give Aegis-capable ships enough time to respond to a threat.
“The worst-case scenario for a conflict under the proposed fleet architecture would be to have no indications or warning of imminent aggression with the Maneuver Force at the farthest reach of its Indo–Asia–Pacific area of operations,” the report states. “The Maneuver Force could start from the Western Indian Ocean or Central Pacific Ocean when conflict breaks out and arrive about 2000 nm from the Chinese coast when the Deterrence Force needs to withdraw after 2 days of combat.”
However, a 2000-mile mission would strain human endurance and an unrefueled range of more than 10 hours would require an enormous aircraft that might not fit on a carrier flight deck. Thus, the CSBA proposal calls for a smaller aircraft that would be supported by a tanker.
“A 2000-mile combat sortie, however, would take at least 10 hours round-trip, which exceeds the reasonable endurance of a pilot in an ejection seat,” the report stats. “For these missions, the CVW would therefore need an Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) with an unrefueled combat radius of greater than 500 nm to ensure refueling aircraft could remain outside the reach of adversary air defenses and defensive CAPs. The vehicle would also need to be stealthy, so it can penetrate the highly contested airspace near the Chinese mainland.”
The report acknowledges that unmanned aircraft technology has not advanced to the point where a UCAV could be designed to be a multirole machine—a specialized manned fighter is still needed for the air superiority role.