By Ben DiDonato
With the return of great power competition, the threat posed by hostile submarines has garnered renewed attention. Russia’s submarine fleet in particular has been regarded as a serious threat for decades and its latest SSNs are reportedly nearly as quiet as their American counterparts. Similarly, while China’s nuclear submarines have yet to reach this level, China’s access to Russian technology, rapid improvements in other areas, and capacity for mass production suggest it is likely to become a serious threat in the relatively near future. Furthermore, while SSNs are obviously the most serious threat due to their range and speed, diesel submarines cannot be overlooked, with many highly lethal designs widely distributed across the globe. In order to compete effectively against near-peer states armed with these submarines, the United States Navy must have the ability to find, track, and sink them.
As in the Cold War, anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is a challenging area of operations, requiring close cooperation between a wide variety of assets to win what would inevitably be a worldwide campaign. This problem was thoroughly studied and, at least in broad strokes, solved by the end of the Cold War, so this strategy provides a useful guide. That review immediately reveals a critical weakness in current American force structure. Submarines and maritime patrol aircraft are still available for independent hunting, surface combatants for close screening, and helicopters for prosecuting targets, but since the retirement of the S-3 Viking, the U.S. Navy has lacked an organic aircraft for initial detection of submarines approaching the aircraft carrier.
The current stopgap solution is pressing the land-based P-8 Poseidon into this role, but that is far from ideal. Tying P-8s to carriers largely squanders their capabilities, preventing the limited supply of these aircraft from doing their real job of patrolling broad stretches of ocean and protecting other ships. Furthermore, relying on land-based support imposes serious constraints on the carrier strike group, which must operate within range of the P-8 and would almost certainly suffer from periods of vulnerability.
This means the current lack of fixed-wing carrier-based ASW capability should be addressed to provide the required coverage without distracting the P-8 force. While there has been some discussion of reactivating the S-3 Viking to restore this capability, that can only ever be a stopgap measure due to the age of the airframes. A long-term solution is needed to restore fixed-wing ASW capability, and fiscal reality demands this solution be flexible and affordable. Rather than build a new dedicated ASW aircraft, it may be better to instead develop a series of ASW pods and a more flexible aircraft suitable for both ground attack and ASW since either type of store can be carried on the pylons with equal ease.
Podded ASW Systems
A minimum of four specialized systems are required to support fixed-wing ASW: a Magnetic Anomaly Detector (MAD), a sonobuoy dispenser, a sonobuoy receiver, and an air-droppable lightweight torpedo. The Mk 54 torpedo already meets the offensive needs on other aircraft, so it should not require substantial modification to fill this role. Similarly, a sonobuoy dispenser is such a simple system that it does not require explanation beyond pointing out that it would ideally come in a variety of sizes for different aircraft/pylons and have variants which incorporate a sonobuoy receiver to minimize pylon consumption.
Therefore, the only system which requires major development is the MAD pod. To enable normal aircraft operation, particularly safe takeoff and landing, this pod would almost certainly need to use a towed MAD rather than the more common boom-mounted system. This would allow the sensor to be trailed a sufficient distance behind the aircraft when needed and retracted when not in use.
Of course, this podded approach is also ideally suited to incorporating future systems as they become available. A wide variety of unmanned systems and new weapons are in development or have been proposed, and all of them could easily be integrated as additional pods. Whether new payloads for sonobuoy dispensers, a single large UAV/UUV on a pylon, some new cluster system, or a novel idea not yet conceived, stuffing it in a pod and hanging it from an existing aircraft will always be faster and cheaper than trying to cram it into an existing airframe, assuming that is even possible. Therefore, while this approach provides an easy path for incorporating future technologies, the four proven systems discussed above can be immediately developed into an effective ASW capability and should be the short-term priority.
In order to provide an affordable near-term capability and maximize long-term utility, both the MAD and sonobuoy pods should be compatible with the new MQ-25 Stingray UAV. In conjunction with the current MH-60R, this would provide a limited standoff detection, prosecution, and engagement capability to the carrier which could be further supplemented by F/A-18s carrying torpedoes, MAD pods, and additional sonobuoys to engage submarines if needed. While this combination is certainly suboptimal, especially considering the problems caused by using F/A-18s as tankers, the MQ-25 would truly come into its own as an ASW platform once the new fixed-wing aircraft proposed below enters service and can use it as a loyal wingman to greatly improve coverage or direct MQ-25 wolfpacks to aggressively prosecute contacts.
A Pod-Carrying Aircraft
Unfortunately, this pod-based approach to ASW is fundamentally incompatible with the S-3 airframe. It cannot carry the number and variety of pods or ground attack weapons required on its two underwing hardpoints, especially when we consider future podded systems. Although its weapons bays contain another four hardpoints, their internal placement would likely interfere with the operation of most pods. Remediating this deficiency by adding new pylons in a major refit is likely impractical due to interference from the under-wing engines. The integrated nature of the S-3’s ASW systems also prevents it from using much of its payload capacity for non-ASW missions. It is simply not possible to replace these fixed systems with ground attack or anti-ship weapons when using the aircraft in other roles, leaving it limited to only six weapons hardpoints for these missions.
Shifting to the budgetary side, integrated systems are generally more expensive to maintain and upgrade than podded systems. Furthermore, the Navy presumably lacks the resources to operate both integrated and podded systems, likely costing the carrier air wing the flexibility to task non-ASW aircraft with ASW missions. Budgetary pressures also make this alternate role critical because the S-3 probably would have survived the global war on terror if it doubled as a low-cost ground attack platform. Therefore, long-term use of the S-3 would be costly and inflexible, so a new solution is needed.
The obvious solution is a completely new aircraft. While this is certainly an option and would presumably produce an excellent aircraft with plenty of capacity, numerous pylons, and a low operating cost, there are two major problems with it. The first is that going through the full development and adoption cycle would take a very long time, likely more than could realistically be covered by a stopgap S-3 reactivation. The second is that major projects like this are politically challenging, with a serious risk of cancelation – assuming they get started at all. While it may be possible to overcome these issues, they are serious enough to merit an examination of alternative options.
The most obvious alternative is to adapt an existing carrier aircraft to take on the role. Within the current carrier air wing, there are two possible airframes, the E-2/C-2, and the V-22.
The E-2/C-2 would obviously make an excellent mono-mission platform since it is already configured to carry a large support crew. However, that same large crew would limit its payload and make risking it in other roles like ground attack unappealing. The only other role it could realistically take on is general airborne drone control, but this can already be performed by the E-2 and fighters so there seems to be little value here, especially since these aircraft can also relay drone datalinks to surface ships. While none of this detracts from an E-2/C-2 derivative’s ability to take on the mission, it does mean it fails to realize the additional flexibility promised by this podded approach, so a different platform is preferable.
The V-22, or more accurately the CMV-22B, may be a better candidate. The ability to transition to helicopter mode would be useful for prosecuting targets, and its unsuitability to ground attack is less of an issue since it is already a cargo aircraft, although the flipside of that is that is that there is less leeway to retask between these two missions than between ASW and ground attack. Unfortunately, payload integration may be an issue, both due to questions about retrofitting pylons on the rotating wing assembly and its more limited digital backbone, and overall external stores capacity would likely be limited after the necessary upgrades based on published payload and range figures. Therefore, while it is certainly worth performing a more detailed study to better understand the true costs, capabilities, and limitations of an ASW V-22 variant, it also seems suboptimal for this pod-based approach.
The final alternative is adapting a land-based aircraft for naval service. While there have certainly been serious problems adapting aircraft in the past, there have also been notable successes like the YF-17’s evolution into the F/A-18 family and the SH-60 family’s decent from the Army’s UH-60. Furthermore, the C-130 famously proved able to operate from the USS Forrestal without modification, and based on a recent interview with the pilot, the flying seems to have been fairly straightforward. While the C-130 itself is obviously too big for regular deck handling, this success strongly implies any aircraft designed to operate from short/rough airfields would be an excellent candidate for marinization, especially with a Super Hornet-style redesign.
There are too many aircraft to go through individually, but desired capabilities narrow the field to a smaller slate. The ideal aircraft would be small enough to operate from a carrier, have short/rough field capability, good payload, plenty of pylons, good fuel efficiency, low maintenance requirements, and excellent handling at low speed and altitude. While most aircraft cannot meet this challenging set of desires, there is one candidate suitable for adaptation into a pod-based multirole ASW aircraft. Not only does this aircraft meet all these desires, but it also has an exceptional ground attack record, proven flexibility in other roles like counter-Fast Attack Craft/Fast Inshore Attack Craft (counter-FAC/FIAC) and combat search and rescue support, and, most importantly, very strong political support to carry the program through budget battles. This aircraft is, of course, the A-10.
The SA-10D Seahog
With an A-10 variant identified as the best option for carrying ASW pods, considering both capability and timeline, we now turn our attention to a brief discussion of what that would look like. The most likely approach is a redesign comparable to the Hornet’s “upgrade” to the Super Hornet because that allows any necessary changes to be incorporated relatively easily. That said, the A-10’s unusually simple airframe may allow boneyard aircraft to be modified for service, even if only as prototypes or a wartime contingency, so that possibility will be discussed here as well. Of course, the program office is not obligated to pick just one option. They could develop both a modification package and a new-build design to improve the competition and provide maximum value to the taxpayer.
Since this aircraft will be largely optimized for affordably hauling underwing stores as a byproduct of this pod-based approach to ASW, that payload can be used in a variety of other roles beyond the obvious close air support. This could entail utility duties like backup tanking, combat support roles like standoff missile carrier, and majority Air Force missions like laying Quickstrike sea mines to further support the rest of the air wing, increase the carrier’s flexibility, and improve the lethality of the joint force.
One other intriguing advantage of using the A-10 as a baseline for the ASW pod carrier is that its short/rough field performance suggests it may be possible to fly it from smaller, simpler ships like amphibs, especially if thrust reversers are added. This would give the joint force the ability to rapidly build new ASW hunter-killer groups if needed and could give the Marines an alternate air support option for amphibious operations if desired. Similarly, this would allow commercial ships to be converted into useful escort carriers in wartime, freeing purpose-built carriers for frontline duties. Finally, this would open up the ability to fly from smaller dedicated aircraft carriers and, while it seems unlikely the United States would build any, a number of its allies operate CVLs and may be interested in acquiring these SA-10Ds to provide organic ASW capability and additional strike capacity to their own carriers.
From a programmatic standpoint, using a few minimally modified A-10A’s from the boneyard could serve to reduce risk and accelerate introduction by entering flight testing prior to delivery of the first full prototype, although this is obviously not required. Most usefully, up to three aircraft could be modified to add a second seat for the ASW systems operator and at least simulated electronics to demonstrate operational effectiveness and begin developing tactics and procedures for the fleet ahead of delivery. The other, less important, conversion would validate performance and carrier suitability by adding a new launch bar and a strengthened arresting hook to a single aircraft.
Naturally, the subject of airframe modification entices interest, so we will now move into a brief exploration of the most interesting changes and options, although basics like more modern engines will be omitted. That said, it is critical to bear in mind that this SA-10D concept is fully dependent on the previously discussed podded systems for ASW operations, so those systems are more important than anything discussed here even though this section will likely generate more discussion.
First and most importantly, the aircraft must have a second seat like the old YA-10B prototype. Modern computers should allow a single person to manage all the ASW equipment instead of the multiple operators required on the S-3, as well as direct any supporting drones, but there is no way the pilot would be able to handle that workload on top of flying the aircraft. It should also be noted that this second crewmember can be swapped for another specialist such as a forward air controller when required for the mission at hand, further improving the air wing’s flexibility. Therefore, whether this is a conversion of old airframes or a new build, a single seat is simply unworkable for the mission.
Closely related to this is electronics. To reduce development costs and streamline maintenance, it is strongly recommended that the F-35’s electronics be reused as close to wholesale as possible. The A-10’s simple airframe should make it relatively easy to integrate these systems, especially if it is a new-build variant, and the commonality would bring new capability and simplify future upgrades. Beyond providing a digital backbone to host the ASW systems, this would make the SA-10D a potent networked shooter by hauling large numbers of long-range missiles and seamlessly communicating with F-35Cs further forwards. This could be further exploited by a new-build aircraft which would likely be larger to further increase capacity and could add dedicated AIM-9X sidewinder rails to provide defensive fire against hostile aircraft.
Folding wings would not ordinarily merit separate discussion because it is obvious a new-build aircraft would include them and that the A-10’s straight wings will allow a dramatic width reduction, but the modification of existing airframes is unusual enough to merit special attention. Unlike most aircraft, the A-10 only carries fuel in its inner wing and is designed with very simple, robust structures with extensive left/right interchangeability. This means the A-10 is in the unusual situation of being able to easily accept folding wings in an upgrade, so modified boneyard aircraft are a feasible option even though they were never intended to operate from carriers.
Of course, any time the A-10 comes up, its gun is a major discussion point so it must be addressed here even if it is not relevant to ASW. Unfortunately, while the GAU-8 has given excellent service, it would almost certainly have to be abandoned for marinization in favor of the F-35’s 25mm GAU-22. While the resulting commonality would streamline shipboard logistics, this change is primarily driven by the fact that the GAU-8’s mounting forces the nose wheel off-center on the A-10, which is unacceptable for catapult launch and results in asymmetric turning circles which may complicate deck handling. One potential upside to this change is that it allows an increase in total stowed ammunition and possibly even the installation of a second gun if desired. This could extend the effective range of the weapon by firing enough explosive rounds to effectively saturate the larger dispersion area, potentially allowing the gun(s) to be effective in the counter-FAC/FIAC role from beyond the range of any man-portable air defense systems they may carry.
The A-10’s armor is similarly a regular point of discussion, although in this case there is no clear answer to be had. If old -A models were to be modified for this new role, it would likely prove more practical to simply leave the armor in place even if it is not particularly useful for the aircraft’s new role since it is integrated into the load-bearing structure. Of course, a new build would not face this restriction, so the armor would almost certainly be omitted to save weight. However, modern materials could allow some level of protection to be retained without much of a weight penalty if desired. Ultimately, the details would have to be worked out between the contractors and the program office, so a definitive answer cannot be given here.
One final exotic option for a new-build aircraft is to integrate a laser weapon to shoot down incoming missiles, or at least provide room for one to be added in the future. The technical risks and costs of this are obvious, but with laser weapons entering service and rapidly maturing, it should at least be considered.
As has been shown, the critical vulnerability left by the retirement of the S-3 can be rapidly and affordably filled to ensure the carrier’s survivability against submarines, and by extension its relevance in great power competition or war. A series of podded sensors would allow the MQ-25 and current aircraft to provide some ASW capacity, while a new SA-10D Seahog can be rapidly developed to fully fill the ASW gap using those podded systems and improve the flexibility of the carrier air wing.
Ben DiDonato is a volunteer member of the NRP-funded LMACC team lead by Dr. Shelley Gallup. He originally created what would become the armament for LMACC’s baseline Shrike variant in collaboration with the Naval Postgraduate School in a prior role as a contract engineer for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. He has provided systems and mechanical engineering support to organizations across the defense industry from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) to Spirit Aerosystems, working on projects for all branches of the armed forces.
Featured Image: An air-to-air front view of three S-3A Viking aircraft from Air Anti-submarine Squadron 31 (VS-31) as they pass over the USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (CVN-69) (Photo by PH3 Houser, via U.S. National Archives)
13 thoughts on “Depth from Above: Reinventing Carrier ASW”
F-18s aren’t a good option because they are already over-saturated with tasks between all their bosses: strike, air warfare, and zulu.
A newly built A-10 , with a changed wheel and folding wings seems more complex than adapting the MV-22 which is still in production.
I wouldn’t go for an MV_22 ASW platform, but I sure would make sure crews knew how to drop Sonobuoys out the back. Maybe a mobile processing station you can roll on roll off.
I fully agree that dumping ASW on the F/A-18 is a terrible option, but that’s an unfortunate consequence of trying to make it do everything, even tanking. It’s all we have, so it’s the only aircraft we can put pods on today. This collateral role won’t be a big deal once we get a real ASW aircraft because you can strap the pods on and let the pilot to follow instructions from the people who know what they’re doing in an emergency, but we’re a long way from that point.
As for the MV-22, I fully understand where you’re coming from, but its just not possible to hang numerous pods off it. The problem is, when it folds for storage, its wing assembly rotates 90 degrees so they’re above the fuselage. That makes it wonderfully compact, but it means any pylons hanging from the wing would collide with the fuselage if they weren’t removed first. That would be a huge headache on a carrier, especially for sustained operations like ASW, and there’s really no good way around it. About the best you can do is throw things out the ramp by hand, and that’s obviously far from optimal. Also, the MV-22 has a surprisingly limited payload for its size which isn’t ideal.
As for the A-10 being out of production, that may be more of an asset than a hinderance. My understanding is the government has full ownership of its technical data, so we could share that to run a proper competition. The simplicity of the platform makes that even more attractive since it makes it a great opportunity for companies that don’t build fighters (e.g. Textron) to break into the market, and we could easily encourage that by letting 4+ companies proceed to the prototyping phase, effectively guaranteeing someone new gets the chance to prove themselves. I’d actually want to go further and give Lockheed the boneyard modification experimentation work and possibly mandatory avionics system integrator status in exchange for staying out of the competition proper in order to guarantee we have at least two tactical jet manufacturers going strong ahead of the big contracts coming up, although that might be too much of a circus to negotiate.
We share the common cause of restoring long range ASW aviation to the carrier community. I would call it the ship community because I’m more interested in things that can operate from more than 11 platforms.
First, MAD sensors have gotten much lighter and are already being integrated on MH-60R and Coyote UAVs that are designed to drop from an A-size Sonobuoy launcher. MAD should not be an obstacle. They can go in Sonobuoy pods same as the sonobuoys.
Next, the lightweight torpedo based on CVLWT is happening. This will provide a weapon that won’t weigh so much it degrades endurance. Thus UAVs will at some point be able to do more than hunt and track.
Additionally, integrating capability on existing resources is the first thing that needs to happen. Sonobuoys and potentially MAD Coyote UAVs dropping off the back of V-22. Integrate the pods from L3Harris or GA similar to the Sea Guardian on any fighter. Fighters may also need to deliver Mk 54s allowing as much endurance tracking payload as possible on helos and UAVs.
On platforms, the MQ-25 is the obvious choice. It’s already there as a tanker, they want to get it more into ISR work, and it has endurance. It best uses what is already there. ASW is a long, slow game. Its why ACTUV – Sea Hunter was designed the way it was. Unmanned is very useful in the ASW role. Have MQ-25 use the same podded gear as Sea Guardian. Makes the most use of available carrier real estate. Make sure we have at least 8 on deck. Many have called to greatly expand that number.
The Marines are now in the MQ-9 business. I’d strongly recommend they plan for the STOL Mojave version with the ASW gear so it can take off of short unimproved Pacific airstrips and straight off an LHA deck like the OV-10 used to do. Again, same podded gear from Sea Guardian.
If I were to invest in a platform we don’t have, I would use it for a VTOL UAV that we can fit 2 of in 1 MH-60 hangar spot. I’d want it to use 1 of the same engine as MH-60 or follow on manned platform. MQ-8C won’t ever be able to contribute much to ASW. Their podded solution is a nice picture, but weighs too much.
There is no reason to swap S-3s for A-10s on a carrier deck. If we lack imagination, bring the S-3 back (I wouldn’t). A-10 will burn a pile of money on something no one needs on a carrier.
I definitely understand where you’re coming from regarding small drones and the desire to operate from more platforms, but you do need to remember this article is specifically about carrier ASW. I fully agree the MH-60R is an excellent platform and miniaturizing systems mean smaller drones offer a lot of opportunities in the future. However, the tradeoff of smaller aircraft is that their smaller size limits their operational range (note the size of long-range drones like the Reaper) and there’s not much that can be done within the constraints of a surface combatant to overcome that. That lack of range is a serious problem when it comes to defending carriers and is the key shortcoming the carrier strike group needs to overcome. A larger fixed wing platform is required to provide that range, and since this article is specifically about defending carriers the flight deck is already there. This narrow focus is clearly visible in the way I only briefly acknowledge amphibs and other unconventional ships even though I recently published an article on an alternate small carrier approach (link below) which could carry these aircraft, so don’t over-interpret that limited scope as ignoring other opportunities.
Of course, we are generally on the same page with your discussion of existing platforms (plus the MQ-25) mirroring my own arguments for podded ASW instead of the integrated approach of legacy systems like the S-3. One critical point to remember is that a huge advantage of this podded approach is that it makes it easy to integrate multiple ASW airframes into the fleet since they can all use the same pods. Conversely, you can always swap those pods for other weapons or systems when ASW is not required, so your VTOL drone can turn into a light gunship just as easily as my SA-10D can turn back into a ground attack aircraft. That will dramatically reduce the total cost of ASW and relieve pressure to cut the capability when the politicians think subs aren’t a threat so we don’t wind up in this hole again.
Moving on, one of MAD’s key advantages is that it’s not expendable so it needs its own pod, not a sonobuoy chute. That said, you are absolutely correct that a MAD pod should be fairly small using modern technology, and that’s a key reason I see pylon count as a critical requirement for a future carrier ASW aircraft. Individual systems (and weapons like the lightweight torpedo) won’t weight that much, so more pylons will be required to carry the full spectrum of future ASW systems, not just the ones listed in the article, in the numbers required. This numbers game is particularly important to remember in light of the British experience in the Falklands War where they expended a staggering number of sonobuoys and weapons against a single submarine without sinking it, so we absolutely shouldn’t expect success unless we bring lots of weapons and sensors to bear.
Finally, I think I covered this well enough already, but the reason for using the A-10 is its range/loiter time and pylon count, although its secondary utility as a CAS bird or missile truck certainly doesn’t hurt. A small drone doesn’t have the range to even be part of the conversation, and the S-3 doesn’t have the pylons for the job so it will wind up burning far more money trying to keep its unique integrated systems up to date. Conversely, the A-10 variant will share pods with the smaller drones you’re looking at and avionics with the F-35, so its upgrades will be essentially free. The redesign should be relatively cheap since it’s a simple, rugged airframe, so the only real expense is procurement. Now, if you’re just irrationally allergic to the A-10, you can always design a new airplane from scratch, but that will cost even more money, take longer, and produce essentially the same platform so there’s absolutely no reason to do so.
I’m not sure why we are comparing a manned aircraft against a class 5 UAV for endurance? MQ-25 is using a derivative of the MQ-4s engine and is delivering 15,000lb of fuel at 500 nautical miles. It will have the legs.
GA’s proposed STOL MQ-9B will still approach Sea Guardian’s 25-30 hours for per hour cost way below a manned aircraft. Fuel use way below a manned aircraft. https://www.navalnews.com/event-news/indo-pacific-2022/2022/05/general-atomics-unveils-mq-9b-stol-for-small-flat-tops/
You were discussing small UAVs so that was what I focused my response on, especially because the MQ-25 was explicitly discussed in the article. However, to address these larger UAVs, there are three key issues.
First, they lack the payload and pylons to carry the full spectrum of required equipment, especially once future systems start entering service. As I showed in my response to Chuck, you need more payload than either drone can carry which places a hard limit on their utility. This is especially important because the limited payload sharply limits the benefits of long endurance since they’d run out of stores faster than a heavier manned aircraft.
Second, communications are a potentially serious problem. ASW aircraft need to operate near sea level and, in this case, will be operating well over the horizon so they can’t use a line of sight datalink to shipboard operators. That forces the drone to rely on non-line of sight communications, a relay aircraft, or satellites. All three options impose serious risks with regard to communications reliability, security, and detectability, making them suboptimal without a manned aircraft on station to command them as mentioned in the article.
Third, the advantages aren’t as great as you seem to be implying. It’s always hard to get good data, but the CBO estimated the RQ-4’s lifecycle cost per flying hour was only 17% cheaper than the P-8. Similarly, the footprint isn’t going to be much different from the manned aircraft since they’re all fairly large airframes, especially in terms of wingspan. The biggest advantage the aircraft you mentioned have is fuel consumption, but that’s mostly a result of them being lighter airframes.
At the end of the day, there’s nothing magical about unmanned aircraft. They’re machines constrained by the laws of physics and engineering reality just like manned aircraft. Yes, they do have some advantages, but these are balanced against very real disadvantages that cannot be ignored in any serious discussion of procurement.
No one needs to be near the surface to hunt a sub now. The sonobuoys drop. MAD is a sonobuoy sized UAV. The torpedo has wings. MQ-4 cost per hour is a heap beyond an MQ-9. Let aircraft do what they do best. Cover distance quickly and efficiently and see a long way.
Another aircraft to consider is the AT-6 or A-29 Super Tucano. Simple aircraft, lots of pod space, second seat available.
Even without tail hook, should be able to land on carriers and even LHA using prop reversal as was done with the C-130.
To answer the spirit of your question more robustly, I’ll discuss the AT 802U Sky Warden since that was selected for the Air Force’s armed overwatch program and seems to be better suited to the role due to its heavier payload. Now, as you pointed out it is a simple aircraft with a second seat and plenty of pylons so it could do the job, but it still only carries 6,000 pounds according to L3. It’s hard to get good weight estimates, but if we assume 250 pounds per very lightweight torpedo, 60 pounds per podded sonobuoy, and 500 pounds for the MAD and receiver, the S-3’s design load of 4 torpedoes and 60 sonobuoys wind up weighing 5,100 pounds. That’s obviously workable, although it does leave a very narrow margin for future growth, especially in terms of available pylons since it looks like most of the Sky Warden’s pylons are only rated for 500 pounds. Considering the potential of small deployable unmanned systems and the impact on fatigue life from operating near max load all the time, this seems like a critical shortcoming.
Also, there are three areas where engineering changes are almost certainly mandatory so it’s not as off the shelf as you may be thinking. To get in on a carrier, it’s going to need folding wings to reduce its footprint, and I’d also assume the Navy will mandate a tail hook for safety. Also, its electronics are presumably tailored for its special forces support mission and would thus need modification to use Navy networks and ASW systems. None of that’s a show stopper, but it would eat payload unless you paid for further upgrades.
One final point to consider is that its limited payload and low pylon weight limits prevent it from carrying large weapons like JASSM/LRASM at all, so it can’t serve as a missile carrier like the A-10. For comparison, the F/A-18 can carry 4 of those missiles but generally won’t due to carrier bringback limitations, while the A-10 can carry 6 if you don’t need extra fuel with a realistic load of 4, or double the F/A-18’s.
Thus, while you could probably just about squeeze everything you need onto the light attack aircraft, it lacks the longevity and flexibility needed to really shine in the role.
The Army Future Vertical Lift Program is set to choose an aircraft to replace the H-60 and about twice the range and speed. That is probably where we want to put development money for a future ASW aircraft.
Certainly could be complemented by UAS.
Maybe. I don’t have much confidence in the Army to procure anything new at this point so I won’t count on that, but even if it does happen I’m not convinced it would be useful for the Navy. Most of the Navy’s uses of the H-60 family don’t particularly rely on range or speed, so I doubt it’d be worth jumping. We might reconsider that once it’s in service and we have a better understanding of the real costs and benefits, I’m not seeing a reason to be an early adopter.
Also, I think I should mention that as a rotary-wing platform, it doesn’t factor in the article’s discussion of fixed-wing ASW. Also, it isn’t supposed to be in Army service until 2030, so we could almost certainly get the SA-10D into service first.
The biggest hurdles to any new platform are ramp space requirements and making it a program of record. Adding airframes to a carrier deck is going to be a hard sell. New designs will be a hard sell as well. Doing both is the far side of impossible.
Adding pods to an aircraft already on the CVN (F-18, eventually MQ-25) is an easy option but depends on how well the combo works and how tasked those aircraft already are.
Funding more P-8s to operate off land is a simple option, though the dollar figure may be an issue.
Adapting a land-based aircraft for CATOBAR carrier operations would take more effort and have less payoff than adapting the MQ-25 or a follow-on UAV, so that’s a hard no.
Ultimately, the best option, based on incremental cost and programmatic risk, is a federated system mostly using the ASW resources that already exist. Drop buoy patterns from F-18s, CMV-22s, MH-60s, P-8s, etc; monitor using UAVs or maybe an antenna on the E-2; strike submarines using VL-ASROC or airdropped torpedoes. No MAD capability at present, but this might not be worth adding. It would be scalable and limited-risk, both of which are massive assets to a DOD program.