back to article DRONE ALONE: US Navy secretary gives up on manned fighters

The secretary of the US Navy has said the F-35 Lightning II, the product of the Joint Strike Fighter program, “should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” Speaking at the Sea-Air-Space 2015 conference on Wednesday, secretary Ray Mabus said ( …

  1. Picky

    Drone on

    Might bring a whole new meaning to "The Blue Screen of Death"

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Good news...

      For the Iranians who have taken over drones from the Yanks in the past. Their Air Force will get a refresh.

  2. Mark 85 Silver badge

    All will be well then...

    The F-35 “should be, and almost certainly will be, the last manned strike fighter aircraft the Department of the Navy will ever buy or fly.” Will it ever be operational? If not, there's the 'out' for the Navy. Now we just have to figure out what to do with 10 new carriers that have been ordered.

    1. auburnman

      Re: All will be well then...

      If they can actually support aircraft unlike ours we will gladly have them (or we would if we had any money to buy them)

    2. John Sager

      Re: All will be well then...

      The bigger drones will need some kind of carrier, though probably not a Nimitz-class beast.

      However, I don't think he's got enough clout to kill the bureaucratic fiefdoms. That would take a raft of Executive Orders, and even then the buggers could probably shout 'Unconstitutional!' in the Supreme Court. Bureaucrats are the nearest real thing to the Zombie Apocalypse that we've got.

      1. Mark 85 Silver badge

        Re: All will be well then...

        The new carriers are the "Ford" class.... even bigger.

      2. LucreLout Silver badge
        Coffee/keyboard

        Re: All will be well then...

        Bureaucrats are the nearest real thing to the Zombie Apocalypse that we've got.

        That is without doubt the best description of bureaucrats I've ever heard!

    3. Ken 16 Silver badge
      Terminator

      Re: All will be well then...

      They'll probably lease the F-35's for an annual fee and keep them in service as long as the B-52's, that'll allow the politicians to keep that promise and Lockheed Martin to make their profits.

      One last Carrier will be preserved with F-35's as a museum and it's antiquated systems will be all that keep it safe from the Drone attack so that it can lead humanity to a new home...oh wait, that's just a TV programme.

    4. GitMeMyShootinIrons

      Re: All will be well then...

      Those carriers will make pretty big drone factory/motherships. Hangar deck fitted out with 3d printers etc. In fact, lets automate the carriers too - drone carriers, automated 3d printers fabricating automated drones. I can't see anything going wrong with that....

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: All will be well then...

        What was that old game? Clickety-clickety-searchey... Oh yes, Carrier Command. Had great fun with that. They built 2 autonomous self-repairing, island colonising carriers, and then one was taken over by terrorists. The better one of course.

        1. WraithCadmus

          Re: All will be well then...

          [...]Oh yes, Carrier Command. Had great fun with that.[...]

          "TEMPEST is now an enemy island"

          Had it on the ST, but I was too young to play it properly or understand it. I think my and my brother spent most of our time trying to come up with inventive ways to blow up our own ship.

      2. Captain DaFt

        Re: All will be well then...

        "lets automate the carriers too - drone carriers, automated 3d printers fabricating automated drones. I can't see anything going wrong with that...."

        You mean... Berserkers?

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berserker_%28Saberhagen%29

      3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: All will be well then...

        "In fact, lets automate the carriers too"

        Oh, noooo, that's just one step too far for the sailors. The pilots aren't really sailors so getting rid of them is ok, but actual ships and proper sailors? That's just not cricket old boy.

        On a slightly more serious note, I'd have thought drone ships would be easier to operate than drone aircraft and wonder why they don't even seem to be investigation that possibility let alone starting production.

        The air force seem to be quite, if not very interested in pilot-less aircraft. The army are looking seriously at robots for logistics and exo-suits. The navy only seem to be interested in bigger ships and bigger guns

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: All will be well then...

          John Brown (with or without body),

          To be fair to the Navy, automating large ships is a rather different proposition. With an aircraft, dropping the pilot might well save you a significant cost of the actual aircraft (as it doesn't require all the survival systems to keep him alive). It can also become better at its job, by being a different shape for stealth, pulling much more g force, or replacing the weight of pilot and cockpit with more fuel or weapons. Even then we're talking capital cost of the aircraft in the tens of millions.

          Ships come in the hundreds of millions to billions. Their shape is decided by hydrodynamics, the speeds they wish to achieve, and how much crap they need to carry. They could certainly do without quite a lot of their crews (I would imagine weapons systems will become more and more automated as systems like AEGIS are), but they require damage conrol crews. Seeing as you need a decent number of people to still fight the ship while others are repairing it, you then end up with larger crew sizes. Whereas damage control in aircraft is something we'll have to wait for R2D2 for.

          Things like missiles take up a lot of space, as does fuel. And to get a high speed and carry all that crap, you end up having to build a long thin ship anyway, to hold the engines and get the speed. So the crew are less of a burden to a system that already needs to be a decent size.

          I guess there'll be a balance of increasing automation and maintaining spare crew for emergencies. For example the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers use smaller crews than the old Invincible class, which were under half the size. The new American Ford class ones are going to operate on hundreds fewer crew as well.

          Also ships will often need things like landing parties, and boarding parties. They go on diplomatic visits and do disaster rescue work. What ships do is too varied. And I suspect a lot of stuff isn't automated because you need some crew around to fix it when it breaks (or gets shot), so you may as well keep the buggers busy. Finally a drone plane is only going flying for a day or two. Ships deploy for months.

          It ought to make sense to have smaller drone-ships, in the few hundred tonne class of missile corvettes though, that could operate to support a larger fleet, and be maintained by them (as well as acting as their protective pickets).

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: All will be well then...

            "It ought to make sense to have smaller drone-ships, in the few hundred tonne class of missile corvettes though, that could operate to support a larger fleet, and be maintained by them (as well as acting as their protective pickets)"

            Yes, I agree with most of your points, especially the above point where there is a use for drone ships to some extent. Likewise, both navy and air force will still have a use for piloted aircraft in many situations as well. I can't imagine a pilot-less aircraft doing emergency evac in a disaster zone on improvised runways. Although with time, pilot-less helicopters might be able to some of the work.

            Getting back to drone naval ships though, what about a complete design change above the waterline and inside? There's no need for an unmanned drone ship to have much, if any, of a superstructure, possibly even to the extent that it would effectively be a surface based "submarine", ie a smooth, curved top-side with almost no radar reflection, hatches opening as required for firing weapons etc. and little worry about the sort of weather and waves it can deal with since a "sealed" ship, with no worry about how much it pitches, yaws and rolls (no loose meatbags and their stuff) could handle almost anything. I'm sure there are a number of missions such a ship cold perform, not least of which would be carrier protection where the drone-ship operators could be based.

            1. x 7

              Re: All will be well then...

              @John Brown

              the military planners are way ahead of you

              first, one of the roles of unmanned helicopters is CASEVAC / MEDEVAC from battlefields and hazardous areas. The initial aircraft are in trial now, and are not far away from squadron service. Some are unmanned, some are optionally manned.

              as to your surface ship redesign, that is exactly what is happening to the new generation of unmanned ships. The limiting factors being the need to be able to site the sensor arrays high enough to work, and weapon systems in positions where they are invulnerable to sea damage

    5. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: All will be well then...

      "Will it ever be operational?"

      Probably not.

      At which point HMS Sitting Duck and HMS White Elephant might have to make do with Ospreys (which at least seem to be a reasonable platform for AWACS, over the current use of helicopters)

  3. codejunky Silver badge

    Ha

    Agile technology, coming soon, crashing into your back yard!

    I do think unmanned fighters is a good idea for development. I am somewhat in favour of it somewhat being deployed in a war. But to rely on it only sounds a little risky

  4. Arthur the cat Silver badge
    WTF?

    Awful acronym

    "Close-In Autonomous Disposable Aircraft (CICADA) “

    Where the hell does that second 'C' come from?

    1. Richard 81

      Re: Awful acronym

      CICADA: Close-in Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft

    2. Electron Shepherd

      Re: Awful acronym

      It's for "covert"

    3. fajensen Silver badge

      Re: Awful acronym

      "Cartel" - This will be the perfect tool to deliver recreational pharmaceuticals to discerning customers.

      Most people will pay a premium to not deal with drug dealers directly, and, most people probably also prefer to know that whatever they are about to sniff, ingest or eat was delivered by air rather than by digestive system.

  5. aawelj

    Have we been here before?

    "Defence Minister Duncan Sandys stated in the 1957 Defence White Paper that the era of manned combat was at an end and ballistic missiles were the weapons of the future" - Wikipedia.

    Well, that turned out to be a bit premature, but maybe this time?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Have we been here before?

      It's not like the aeroplane will eventually be cancelled because of the "obsolescence" of manned aircraft, budget overruns, delays and unnecessary complexity though.

      I am sure the TSR-2, sorry, the F-35 will be fine...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Have we been here before?

      "Well, that turned out to be a bit premature, but maybe this time?"

      For bombing small countries without advanced technologies UAVs will be great. But against any country able to produce a credible EMP weapon then there's a big problem for drones, and for that matter any fly by wire or electronically controlled warplane (ie most of them).

      AFAIK there's no good non-nuclear EMP weapons at the moment, but it is the most obvious line of defence against semi-disposable drones, and stands a good chance of being effective against missiles, aircraft and drones.

      1. LucreLout Silver badge

        Re: Have we been here before?

        AFAIK there's no good non-nuclear EMP weapons at the moment, but it is the most obvious line of defence against semi-disposable drones, and stands a good chance of being effective against missiles, aircraft and drones.

        It quite possibly is, but you'd just be sending your own infrastructure back to the stone age too, which saves the need to bomb it in the first place.

        It's likely that anti-EMP technology would emerge - outlying drones and an automated reboot 'should' work until something better comes along. The drone stops transmitting and the base shuts down for a second.

        It might be worthwhile issueing every citizen with a blackwidow catapult and some ball bearings;. Should keep any low flying drones to a minimum.

      2. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Have we been here before?

        "But against any country able to produce a credible EMP weapon then there's a big problem for drones"

        Ballistic missiles are a bit harder to spot and zap than cruise missiles (which are also drones)

        EMP zapguns have been touted for decades but none have actually worked against a hardened target.

  6. kmac499

    And for their next trick..

    I doubt the flight crew of Air Force One need worry about their jobs just yet, but that would be the ultimate 'drone'.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: And for their next trick..

      Surely AF1 just transports a drone?

  7. Roger Lipscombe

    Bureaucracy?

    And he doesn't think that a whole new world of bureaucracy won't spontaneously appear to manage drone procurement? Hmmm.

  8. John Styles

    The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea.

    They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall

    mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by

    small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is

    clear: To build and maintain those robots. Thank you.

    -- Military school Commandant's graduation address,

    "The Secret War of Lisa Simpson"

  9. Little Mouse
    Unhappy

    The Iceman Cometh

    I can picture the "Top Gun" reboot now. All that testosterone and nothing for the pilots to do except waggle their joysticks at each other.

    A bit like, well, Top Gun, I guess.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Iceman Cometh

      haha - They have to show a lot more Boeing Pr0n for this one: New & Improved Top Gun is a fat guy in a trailer nervously groping for that last cheese-whats-it stuck in the corner of the bag while "flying" with the other hand -> not quite what wifey want so see in a movie!

  10. Anonymous Cowherder

    I for one welcome the birth of Skynet

    Typical humans, always building their own obsolescence.

  11. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

    And thus were The ABC Warriors born...

    I can't actually remember any quotes. Must dig out my original collected editions.

    1. Little Mouse

      Re: And thus were The ABC Warriors born...

      I trust that you are referring to the original Progs, as opposed to the Titan Books collections... </2000AD_snobbery>

  12. mathew42

    It should be pointed out that the Navy's requirement for VSTOL is a large part of the reason that the F35 has been a problematic project.

    1. x 7

      "It should be pointed out that the Navy's requirement for VSTOL is a large part of the reason that the F35 has been a problematic project"

      It should actually be pointed out that the Royal Navy had NO requirement for VSTOL - they wanted conventional carriers but the politicos and MoD planners f'cked it up and let the contractors build something that couldn't take catapults, despite assurances to the contrary

      The US Navy isn't getting VSTOL - its getting catapult aircraft.

      The only people who actually wanted VSTOL are the US Marines - but only so they can fly from their own helicopter carriers, not the Navy carriers. But now that the Marines have a lifeline extension on their AV8-B Harriers as a result of buying all ours as spares, their "need" for the F-35C is in doubt.

      So the only people who now "need" the VSTOL F-35C is the Royal Navy - who didn't even want it. And worse, the F-35C isn't capable of vertical landings if loaded. It has to endure a "short rolling vertical landing" - with all the inaccuracy and danger that suggests

      1. /dev/null

        Err, it's the F-35B that's the VSTOL/STOVL variant, the F-35C is the CATOBAR one.

        1. x 7

          you are of course correct, apologies for the mind-fart.

          The B is indeed the supposed V/STOL, the C the CATOBAR

          The A is the non-carrier variant, which the RAF wanted, and were told "tough ****, you get whatever the Navy gets"

    2. alisonken1

      EDIT - redacted - looks like I'm a little late to point out the U.S. Marines were wanting VSTOL.

      With that said, the U.S. Marines are actually a sub-division of the U.S. Navy, so ....

      1. Dom 3

        Bzzt. USMC not part of USN:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniformed_services_of_the_United_States

        But it is part of the United States Department of the Navy. Confused yet?

        1. x 7

          " I'd have thought drone ships would be easier to operate than drone aircraft and wonder why they don't even seem to be investigation that possibility let alone starting production."

          But they are - see

          http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/16/us/u-s-navy-drone-ship/

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fleet-class_unmanned_surface_vessel

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Totally based in reality (And not any Terminator film).

    So a new war is declared on an oil producing country, somewhere on earth, and America sends in some automated ships carrying 10 tons of titanium and 10,000,000 gallons of aircraft fuel, a couple of thousand pre-built PCB's 100,000,000 miles of wire, DC motors, 1 ton of carbon, 1 ton of glass fibre, 1 ton of toxic radar absorbing material, 1000 robot arms and a few hundred 3D metal printers ?

    Somehow this sounds like a new DARPA project put up for tender (Lockheed Martin already have their bid in).

  14. After the Tone

    Robot "Top Gun"

    Looks like the secretary of the US Navy never saw the film "Stealth". Must admit it was an awful film so I can't blame him.

    1. codejunky Silver badge

      Re: Robot "Top Gun"

      @ After the Tone

      Stealth wasnt that bad a film. It was very easy watching and existed purely on action with little else but even with the predictable formula I couldnt help but see some of the malicious simple logic of GLADOS, the touchy feely emotion stuff of short circuit and of course the fast action and cgi shots of fast and furious.

      There are worse ways of wasting a couple of hours.

  15. Rol Silver badge

    Err!!!

    If The Reg could kindly point out to the US navy that it was one of their commentards that proffered the future of combat, some time ago, on these very pages, I'd be willing to split the proceeds 50/50.

    Assuming it isn't delivered by a weaponised Amazon drone, that is. In which case, it's all yours.

    1. ravenviz
      Angel

      Re: Err!!!

      Rol vs. US Navy

      US Navy, how do you plead.

      “When the time is ripe for certain things, they appear at different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.” – Farkas Bolyai.

  16. Martin Milan

    Erm, hang on...

    If these drones are being remotely operated, doesn't that provide next season's bad guy (tm) with a lovely new vector of attack?

    Step 1 : Jam communications between drones and fleet.

    Step 2 : Fly very slowly over forces of freedom, chortling as you go...

    In fact, where are these drones being piloted from? Surely these facilities will become high priority targets, and when they do, might they not find their whole bricks and mortal, stuck in the ground nature to be a bit of a drag?

    I don't like the way all this is going... I don't want to needlessly endanger pilots any more than the next guy, but sometimes there is so substitute for having a thinking, feeling lump of meat in the front seat. So is it needless?

    1. frank ly Silver badge

      Re: Erm, hang on...

      "... where are these drones being piloted from?"

      From a fleet of mobile, highly agile, flying vehicles that each contain a drone pilot, a vehicle pilot a navigator and a defensive systems operator. This fleet operates close to the field of battle to ensure low latency links.

    2. LucreLout Silver badge

      Re: Erm, hang on... @Martin Milan

      The same day anyone either succeeds in doing that or even gets close will be the same day congress authorise fully autonomous drones, removing the need for constant comms with base.

      Be careful what you wish for folks....

      1. x 7

        Re: Erm, hang on... @Martin Milan

        "fully autonomous drones"

        thats exactly what the BAE Systems Taranis is supposed to be

        1. Dan Paul

          Re: Erm, hang on... @x 7

          Can you say "Skynet"?

          1. x 7

            Re: Erm, hang on... @x 7

            "Can you say "Skynet"?"

            not yet.

            Fully autonomous as in program a target and Taranis will fly there and destroy with no subsequent remote input.It doesn't mean - at this stage - autonomously self-identifying and acquiring targets. However, with the ability of synthetic aperture radar to identify hostile targets automatically by comparing radar returns with a look-up list of "known" target types, full autonomy can't be far away

  17. People's Poet

    The proposed use of drones ie unmanned fighters has been around for years, I can remember discussions back as far as the 80's, a fighter without a pilot onboard can pull much greater G then one with a human master inside.

    You don't lose millions in training someone to fly them if they crash or are shot down as they can't kill the occupant.

    There's also a saving on weight for all the equipment to keep the pilot alive so this can go toward fuel or armaments.

    1. /dev/null

      That's all great in theory, but AFAIK, nobody is seriously talking yet about UAVs with air-to-air capability that could mix it with a manned fighter in a dogfight.

  18. JP19

    "The US Navy has already used 3D printers on board ships to create working aircraft."

    What are people smoking when it comes to 3D printing?

    The USS Essex has a 3D printer on board and the only aircraft it has printed are "model planes used for the mock-up of the flight deck" - in other words small bits of plastic crap.

    The same 2014 article says "The Navy believes that they are still several years away from being able to print out actual spare parts for aircraft or the ship itself."

    So 3D printers have not created working aircraft anywhere.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: "The US Navy has already used 3D printers on board ships to create working aircraft."

      Does the USS Essex have a green strip painted on it somewhere, that says "Wayne 4 Sharon"? And possibly a giant set of fluffy dice?

      The crew mess would be called Ritzies, and the officers mess (being posh) would be China Whites...

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "The US Navy has already used 3D printers on board ships to create working aircraft."

      JP19...take a look at http://diydrones.com/group/3d-printing-drone-parts...and Mabus is only talking about making Cicadas...

  19. x 7

    "nobody is seriously talking yet about UAVs with air-to-air capability that could mix it with a manned fighter in a dogfight."

    At present no need. The enhanced flight envelope and stealth of a UAV optimised for penetration / strike should mean that it should simply be able to evade and outrun any manned air defence fighter.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Long before terminator...we had Second Variety by Philip K Dick. Nice when reality follows sci-fi :-)

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Honest question

    How do these things communicate with the the "naval aviators"? If the other team manages to take out a satellite or two, would they then have to make a humiliating call to the Air Force?

  22. Madge
    Stop

    Ultimate Video Game

    This is truly scary. We are going to have generation of forces personnel who treat killing people with no more care than if playing a video game. I saw an interview with a young man who left being a strike drone operator as he was traumatised by what he'd done. But the next generation may not have the same perception of reality as this will be "normal".

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