Last month, Darpa (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) launched a program that aims to design something called a TERN, or Tactically Exploitative Reconnaissance Node, a surveillance and strike drone that can fly up to 900 miles from the deck of a destroyer. Darpa released a full, formal solicitation for the drone in a statement, noting that: "The TERN will be substantially beyond current state-of-the-art aviation capabilities from smaller ships." The solicitation placed heavy emphasis on the "node" component of TERN and highlighted the fact that Darpa encouraged its potential research teams to explore the capabilities of the new drones to exploit cooperation between aircraft and ship to achieve enhanced performance. Such cooperation could potentially take the form of data exchange, external energy addition, and/or manipulation of the recovery environment.
The solicitation itself is interesting from a technological perspective, but there are implications stemming from the TERN program that extend beyond just enhanced drone warfare. Most significantly, the collaborative effort points to fact that the Navy and the Air Force are working on a master concept for future partnered operations called AirSea Battle. However, the parameters of such a comprehensive model are still ill-defined, even in the nascent stages. Its architects have yet to concretely announce how exactly long-range bombers and stealth jets are supposed to work alongside carrier strike groups, submarines or close-to-shore fighters. Another core problem is the lack of a common communication structure between the two branches of the military. This would likely cause serious tactical problems and lead to failed coordinated efforts.
I personally have two primary hesitations for funneling government money into the development of the TERN program. Fundamentally, I think coordination is often a positive and constructive effort. However, TERN would require the configuration and implementation of a "bilingual" communication system that could communicate with both Navy ships and Air Force planes. This would likely be an exorbitantly costly endeavor that quite frankly seems implausible at the moment given sequestration and defense budget issues. What makes the proposal even less appealing is the fact that ultimately, it may not even work. One of TERN’s major technical obstacles is “devising a reliable launch and recovery technique,” according to Darpa itself. LCSs and destroyers don’t have the deck space for a long takeoff run which explains their reliance on the catapult-launched alternatives in the past. It's a hard sell to inject billions of dollars into a comprehensive data system overhaul when its success isn't even guaranteed.
More importantly, we must first define the paramaters of the drone program itself before we work on expanding drone capabilities. The program continues to be shrouded in secrecy and, as some would argue, continues to lack a concrete legal basis. To expand drone capacity into naval territory would be to get ahead of ourselves at a time when the very foundations and competencies of the drone program are still up for debate.