In the 2017 fiscal budget, the United States Navy scrapped its plans for a carrier-based unmanned strike drone (UCLASS) and instead altered the project to be a carrier-based aerial refueling system. (CBARS). This tanker drone would allow manned jets and bombers to penetrate enemy airspace by providing critical refueling—or at least that is the plan.
The unmanned tanker is now being reviewed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), but since the change to the Navy’s unmanned system was announced, it has already changed somewhat. Initially, the drone tanker was not going to be armed, but it was later announced that it would have “limited strike” capability.
Before the decision was made to make the drone a tanker, there was an ongoing debate about whether it should focus primarily on surveillance or whether it should have the capabilities for strike missions in contested enemy airspace. The latter would have required significantly tougher stealth requirements than the former. The decision eventually came down to costs. The Navy was already building its versions of the F-35 joint strike fighter, and so it decided on an aircraft that could support its manned jets.
Now, as the OSD reviews the project, there are questions about whether the CBARS, as the tanker drone is called, should maintain its strike capabilities. The argument against is that the relevant stealth requirements would require “clean line” design, meaning that the fuel for topping off jets in-flight would have to be carried internally, rather than on attached pods. This would make the drone more expensive. The argument for maintaining stealth and strike capabilities, even on a tanker, is that it would allow the Navy to evolve the drone over time. Then, if the Navy requires more kinetic systems, the platform for them would already exist. The balance to be struck allows the drone to be built cheaply, but allow opportunities for future development.
This will be an important test for the Navy in terms of developing a system that is evolvable. In this regard, the consideration of the CBARS—if it is to be developed at all—should review future uses for the platform. This program will help reveal whether the military can begin to reconnect acquisitions with long-term strategy for several reasons.
Technology is advancing rapidly, and there are concerns that the F-35 is already obsolete (though this is debated). If the tanker drone is built with stealth capabilities now, it may indicate an intention to modify the platform as time goes on. That leaves the possibility for a drone strike bomber as much as it does using the drone in contested airspace.
The approach to this unmanned tanker will also reveal exactly what the purpose of the F-35 joint strike fighter will be. As pointed out by Jerry Hendrix at the Center for a New American Security, the missions of the tankers will help reveal how the Navy plans to use its F-35s. If the tankers are to be used to extend F-35 power projection into contested airspace, they will have to be built with stealth in mind. If the tankers are instead to be used to refuel planes as they take off and land from carriers, this would seem to indicate a lower priority on extending the reach of the F-35 (which is already limited). The decision to be made then is more than just the cost-benefits of the now, but also the cost-benefits of the future. Limited options today, by reducing the CBARS’s ability to operate in contested airspace, would create higher costs in the future if a more stealthy refueling system was needed.
Secondly, the decision on the tanker drone will indicate how seriously the Department of Defense (DoD) is taking the need to spend money on systems that can be usefully modified in the future. Technology is advancing rapidly, and there are concerns that the F-35 is already obsolete (though this is debated). If the tanker drone is built with stealth capabilities now, it may indicate an intention to modify the platform as time goes on. That leaves the possibility for a drone strike bomber as much as it does using the drone in contested airspace.
Related to both points is a third conclusion: that the development (or lack thereof) of the tanker drone will provide clear indications of how seriously the Navy is taking the pace of technological development, its connection to strategy, and the need for new strategies. If the CBARS is developed for a one-off purpose, with no ability to be improved upon, it suggests an ongoing disconnect between strategy and acquisitions. The same is true if the development, production, and fielding runs into the delays. If this program is developed with program evolution and technological progress in mind, on the other hand, it could demonstrate a productive awareness of the global environment of the future.
The Navy is wavering between two visions for the drone because of the difficult decisions to make between cost overruns, the need to get a product built, and the need to make sure the program can be relevant for its entire lifetime. But in an increasingly complex security environment, hard choices are to be expected. This is a good opportunity for the Navy and DoD to prove they can handle them.