The U.S. Navy plans to spend up to $1 billion during the next two decades on
unmanned aircraft that sailors and Marines will use to collect battlefield intelligence
and survey potential targets from afar. A new drone currently funded in the
Navy's budget will replace the 13-year-old Pioneer unmanned air vehicle (UAV),
which most recently saw action in the Kosovo conflict.
Unlike Pioneer, which is a conventional fixed-wing craft, the new system will
be required to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter. It is dubbed
the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) UAV. This vehicle will operate on any
ship that currently is equipped to handle helicopter operations. The VTOL capability
is important to the Navy and the Marine Corps because they cannot spare runway
space on ships to accommodate conventional take off and landing. They also want
to simplify the currently cumbersome procedures for recovering the Pioneer UAV,
which demands the use of a net to catch the aircraft. "Vertical take off
and landing is a requirement. But there is no requirement for lift capacity,"
said Stephen D. Hogan, deputy program manager for the Navy's tactical UAV program.
He told National Defense in a recent interview that several companies or industry
teams submitted proposals to the Navy for a March 2000 contract award. "Information
has come in and source selection has started. [But] we are not authorized to
divulge the number or the [specific companies] who have come in." The ground
rules given to industry mostly had to do with performance demands. "No
specific air vehicle was required ... The requirement is for the system rather
than the air vehicle," he added. The VTOL UAV is expected to operate primarily
from destroyers and cruisers. It will provide naval gunfire support and other
The VTOL UAV is one part of a Navy effort to deploy tactical, medium endurance
and high-altitude endurance unmanned air vehicles. The tactical VTOL system
is first in line. The other two projects have yet to receive procurement funding.
According to briefing charts Hogan presented at a conference on UAVs in Albuquerque,
NM, the medium-range UAV could be fielded between 2006 and 2014. Beyond 2015,
there are plans to deploy an armed UAV, dubbed uninhabited combat air vehicle
Currently, the plan is to buy 23 VTOL tactical systems. Each system, Hogan
explained, will include "however many air vehicles it takes to do the mission."
The VTOL UAV has a six-year budget of nearly $332 million. But, according to
Hogan, the cost estimates are not final. "We don't have a very good feeling
for the total program cost. We assumed when we did our cost estimate that a
system would be composed of four air vehicles, four payloads, two ground control
stations for the Marine Corps, one ground control station for the Navy. That
would amount to 12 Navy systems consisting of 48 air vehicles and 24 ground
stations. The Marine Corps would get 11 systems, composed of 44 air vehicles
and 22 ground stations.
"We believe the original 23 systems had an approximate cost of between
$300 million to $400 million," said Hogan. But, if the Navy goes ahead
with its other longer-range UAV programs, "that would put us in the $1
billion range for the total amount to be spent on Navy UAVs," he added.
For the current VTOL system, "until we look at all the contractors' proposals
we won't know what a system costs."
The VTOL UAV will have to fly 12-hour-long missions within a range of up to
110 nautical miles. Marine systems must be able to go ashore and also operate
off an L-class amphibious ship. "That is why there is flexibility in the
type of air vehicle because different vehicles have different endurance capabilities,"
said Hogan. "We don't want to lock in and say there is a specific number
of air vehicles required."
The ground stations would be equipped with the so-called TCS architecture (tactical
control system). The TCS is the technical standard that all Pentagon UAVs must
comply with in order to share information and transmit data.
If the program stays on schedule, the VTOL UAV will be operational by 2004.
One of the more complicated technical issues in this program, said several
experts, is the integration of the UAV with a ship's electronics and communications
systems. The TCS and ground control stations will be critical in making this
Hogan noted that, when it comes to shipboard integration, the UAV has to adapt
to the ship. "That is one of our highest risk areas," he said. Shipboard
integration generally refers to the ability of the UAV to come and go from a
helicopter landing spot without interfering with the ship's normal operations.
"The electromagnetic interference associated with the ship, the wind patterns
that are developed as the ship moves and air flows across foils is a significant
issue as you get closer to the ship, like it is with helicopters," Hogan
Another priority is the flexibility that the UAV offers to incorporate various
payloads. Pioneer can accommodate 23 different payloads, used in missions ranging
from leaflet droppers to signal intelligence collectors to chemical detection.
The most commonly used payloads are electro-optic and infrared night-vision
sensors. The new UAV also will have a laser designation payload. No weapons
are planned for the VTOL UAV.
Rear Adm. John V. Cheveney, Navy program executive officer for cruise missiles
and unmanned aerial vehicles, told the UAV conference in Albuquerque that the
Navy needs "standards to govern the interfaces between sensors and the
air vehicle." This cannot be achieved with Pioneer.
Pioneer has been in service since 1986. It has provided useful capabilities,
said Hogan, but its "inherent problem is that it requires an enormous amount
of additional support, such as a net ... We have to modify specific ships to
be able to put up the barricade that catches Pioneer."
Under the VTOL UAV concept, he explained, "there is little or no ancillary
support equipment required to launch and recover the air vehicle. It can go
on all air-capable ships. Pioneer can only go on those ships that have undergone
Pioneer's other big problem is that it's a fixed-wing aircraft. "It can't
land and take off vertically, which is what the Navy has required for quite
a while," Hogan said.
Ship builders and developers are watching the VTOL UAV program closely because
whichever vehicle is picked by the Navy is likely to be deployed on a significant
number of current and future vessels. Aircraft carrier designer Richard W. Johnson,
who works at Newport News Shipbuilding, in Virginia, is one of those observers.
As a former carrier "air boss," he knows how difficult it can be to
run flight operations on a relatively small deck crowded with aircraft.
"If you have a UAV and you want it to land or take off from an aircraft
carrier, you have to meet those same requirements as manned aircraft,"
Johnson said in an interview. Because the VTOL system will deploy on cruisers
and destroyers, he explained, "its only input to the carrier may be in
data retrieved from it and then relayed to the carrier battle group commander."
Johnson envisions the VTOL UAV as a "miniaturized" V-22 tiltrotor
aircraft, which the Marine Corps is buying to replace outdated helicopters.
"All that technology is there. We know how to land helos, we've been doing
that since the 1950s." He also believes it makes sense for the Navy to
replace Pioneer. "The Navy wants to get away from flying into a net. You
break the prop every time."
On a carrier, "we are more concerned with the UCAV," said Johnson.
UCAVs could, one day, replace the manned bombers now deployed on carriers.
One of the Navy's major ship procurement programs, the next generation surface
combatant called DD-21, also is planning to incorporate UAVs in its design parameters.
Rear Adm. Joseph A. Carnevale, DD-21 program executive officer, told National
Defense that both industry teams that are competing in this program are "looking
at the interaction [of DD-21] with various systems, including UAV ... We are
leaving it up to the industry teams to decide how to integrate" the technologies.
Officials involved in the UAV efforts generally are optimistic about the program
and expressed relief that the Navy was able to get approval for a VTOL system.
That once seemed unlikely.
More than a year ago, the Navy kicked off an aggressive campaign to get the
Pentagon to approve a dedicated naval UAV program-instead of the joint UAV approach
that had been advocated by the Defense Department. A one-size-fits-all UAV effort
failed because the Navy's VTOL requirement would have driven up the cost of
the other services' UAVs. Only the Navy and Marine Corps want VTOL systems,
which are more expensive than conventional take-off and landing aircraft.
An industry survey also confirmed that there are no commercial, off-the-shelf
UAVs that meet the Navy's needs, according to Capt. Lynden D. Whitmer, the Navy's
VTOL UAV program manager.
According to interviews with various industry officials, it appears there are
at least three major contractor teams that will compete for the VTOL program
award. Several officials were reluctant to provide details on their plans for
competitive reasons. At press time, the competition was shaping up as follows:
The Cypher III will be a larger, upgraded version of the Cypher II that the
company is building for the Marine Corps. The Sikorsky team will include General
Dynamics Corporation, Falls Church, Va. and Science Applications International
Corporation (SAIC), of San Diego.
According to Jim Kagdis, naval marketing director at Sikorsky, SAIC decided
to join the team even though it has its own VTOL UAV, called Vigilante. In an
interview, Kagdis said Vigilante, which looks like a helicopter, will be used
as a "flying test bed to shake down the [payload and shipboard integration]
systems" in the Cypher III.
SAIC officials were not available at press time to provide more details on
Vigilante's role in the Sikorsky team. General Dynamics spokesman Carl Johnson
confirmed that his company was "asked to help" but details are sketchy
because the "teams are still coming together."
Other UAV firms that were expected to be in the running decided to sit out
the Navy competition. A case in point is Montreal-based Bombardier Services
Group, which makes the turboshaft-powered Guardian CL-327, commonly known as
the "peanut" UAV because of its shape. According to Bombardier's Chris
Good, the company will not be competing for the Navy award because it was not
certain that it could meet U.S. Navy specifications.
According to industry sources, however, the U.S. Coast Guard is looking at
the Guardian for possible drug interdiction missions. The vehicles would be
deployed on Hamilton-class cutters.
One of Pioneer's prime contractors, AAI Corporation, Hunt Valley, Md., will
not participate because it does not make VTOL UAVs. But the company's manager
for UAV business development, Pete Mullowney, said in an interview that AAI
plans to be a subcontractor on one of the teams. He declined to specify which
of the VTOL teams AAI is supporting.
The other Pioneer prime contractor, Israel Aircraft Industries, will not participate
in the competition, said IAI's Marvin Klemow.
Another manufacturer of VTOL UAVs is Micro Craft Technology, of San Diego.
It makes a small, round-shaped vehicle called the Micro Craft Lift Augmented
Ducted Fan. A company spokesman said the firm chose not to compete for the Navy
Norman Polmar, a naval expert and historian, is confident that the Navy will
field the new UAV. But he also believes there is a "certain bias in the
Navy against unmanned aircraft. The carrier community feels it is in competition,"
he said in an interview. "The Navy needs a forceful leader who will push
UAVs," Polmar said. "There is a lack of strong Navy leadership to
push the UAV program."