Exploring Unmanned Drones as an Option for China’s First Carrier --- Jamestown Foundation Dated 30-March-2012
There are people who are claiming that it will take PLAN a significant amount of time to master its naval aviation wing. This is based on a fallacy known as "mirror-effect". The reasoning given was that since it took USN soo long to master naval aviation, it will take PLAN a similar time. They forget that when USN, RN and the IJN were trying out carrier based aviation, there were a few countries attempting the same. Now there are a plethora of countries which have naval aviation experience, and some of these countries will not be averse to pass on the their expertise to PLAN. We should not forget that the Chinese manned space program did not suffer from all the delays that other countries space and manned program suffered from, as there were countries which were willing, if not eager, to share the know-how with the Chinese.
But we are digressing from the topic. What the above mentioned article says that in stead of having a human element in carrier aviation, the Chinese might go in for a unmanned aviation complement for their carriers, so as to "leap-frog" the current known limitations of carrier aviation. For example the cost of F/A-18 hornet was USD 55 million. The cost of a unmanned weaponized UAV is less than half of the same. And we are not even considering the operational cost, just the acquisition cost. Consider what the article claims
The combination of size, space and economics of UAVs suggest an extremely tantalizing possibility for naval combat situations. For example, the Northrop Grumman X-47B (Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator or UCAS-D) footprint is at least one third smaller than the F-18E. If the wings are collapsed, the X-47B footprint is further reduced. Not only is the X-47B’s horizontal cross section smaller but also the vertical cross section. If UAV weight reductions match the footprint reductions, it could even be possible to stack helicopter or fixed-wing UAVs in multiple columns in the hangar bay or on the flight deck of the ex-Varyag. This could dramatically increase the overall number of UAVs that could be flown, increasing strike potential. The typical compliment of the Kuznetsov-class carrier is 41 mixed rotary- or fixed-wing assets. Taking into account the savings in size and weight, it could be possible that as many as 60-plus UAVs could be mission capable at any one time. Flying times and range also are significantly greater for UAVs depending on the variation.
This makes sense as going forward in naval aviation or plain vanilla air force, the human element will get eliminated. Also it is difficult to replace a fighter pilot, as the training and competence take time to build up and replace. For example the IJN aviation progressively suffered as the war in pacific went on, because of the attrition in its fighter pilots. In fact come 1945 a majority of its best aviation pilots were long gone. The same happened to Nazi air force post 1943. Does that mean that we, as in Indians should be worried? Well not exactly.
A few months ago, in Dec-2011, Iran bought down a stealth drone of US. Not via guns or fighters but by attacking its communication link with its base/controller. That is the greatest weakness of UAV, whether armed or unarmed. This does not mean that we should be complacent. Rather that would be a mistake. We should take this breather to expedite our owned armed UAV program, if we have any, and target for autonomous capability. For example programming the UAV to accomplish a mission on the ground without any interaction with its home base or carrier.