The US Navy, Drones, and “Affordable Mass”

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An official Request for Information (RFI) was published by the United States Navy in order to gather information on available fixed-wing drone launch and recovery systems for non-carrier ships, which indicates the Navy’s future strategic thinking.

The RFI states as follows: “The Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division, Lakehurst, New Jersey, and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Code 35 are seeking sources to fulfill a proposed acquisition requirement for common Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment (ALRE) suitable for Group 3-5 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The UAVs are expected to be fixed wing, low-cost, and reusable/attritable, and would operate off of non-carrier vessel (CV) sea-based platforms.”

According to Interesting Engineering, the use of terms like “attritable” and “low-cost” points to a growing trend of acceptable asset loss in battle, especially if relatively cheap and available in large numbers- “affordable mass.”

The RFI mentions various categories of UAVs, including “Group 3” drones that weigh between 25 and 598 kg and typically operate at speeds under 463 kph and below 5,486 meters, and “Group 4” drones that weigh over 598 kg and also operate at below 5,486 meters. “Group 5” drones weigh over 598 kg and operate above 5,486 meters at any speed. The RFI is reportedly mostly interested in drones that weigh between 454 and 4,536 kg (the upper end of Group 3).

The document can indicate a possible ambition of the Navy for future drones to operate from a wide range of ships. It also speaks of investigating technologies that will let the Navy deploy many inexpensive aircraft to enhance the survival of crucial assets and disseminate Naval air power.

Interesting Engineering opines that the Navy’s plans for combat aviation in the future seem to include advanced unmanned aircraft on their supercarriers, but this may only be the beginning of a larger effort to enable various drone capabilities on multiple ships.