Military commanders increasingly are relying on unmanned aircraft
for surveillance and reconnaissance, especially in maritime areas,
noted a new Defense Department report.
trend, officials said, is indicative of a steady rise in the use
of robotic vehicles in military operations.
Currently, there are nearly 1,000 robotic vehicles in the Central
Command theater of operations. “The combatant commanders like
them. They keep asking for more,” said Dyke Weatherington,
deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and
Weatherington is in charge of the defense secretary’s planning
task force for UAVs, which the Pentagon has renamed “unmanned
aerial systems,” or UASs. “The vehicle, while important,
is only one element in a complex system,” he told a recent
industry conference that was hosted by the Navy International Office.
In August, the task force issued a 213-page UAS roadmap that outlined
the Pentagon’s plans for the evolution of military unmanned
aerial technology during the next quarter century.
A priority for combatant commanders is “persistent ISR [intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance, an uninterrupted flow of information
over extended periods of time], especially in maritime areas,”
he said. “UASs are suited to those roles.”
The Navy and the Coast Guard, particularly, need more help patrolling
the long U.S. coastline, the Persian Gulf and other sea-lanes, Weatherington
As a result, he explained, the defense secretary’s office
“is working with the Navy to rapidly accelerate fielding of
UAS capabilities to the fleet.”
This summer, for example, the Navy began flight tests at Patuxent
River Naval Air Station, Md., with two RQ-4A Global Hawk UAVs as
part of a demonstration program to help determine what capabilities
an unmanned aircraft would need to patrol U.S. coastlines and the
open ocean. The unmanned aircraft would supplement the Navy’s
manned P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and its planned
replacement, the Maritime Multi-Mission Aircraft.
The Global Hawk—made by Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems
of El Segundo, Calif.—is a long-range unmanned aircraft with
a range of 12,000 nautical miles. It has a wingspan of 116 feet
and a length of 44 feet.
The Air Force has employed the Global Hawk in more than 60 combat
missions. Flying at heights up to 65,000 feet with speeds approaching
400 miles per hour for as long as 35 hours, the Global hawk has
put in more than 4,300 combat hours in 200 missions since 2001,
according to Northrop Grumman spokesman Rovelle Anderson.
Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the Navy has been looking for
an unmanned platform to conduct a form of persistent ISR that it
calls “broad-area maritime surveillance,” or BAMS.
A 2004 Defense Science Board study suggested merging the Air Force’s
Global Hawk program with the Navy’s BAMS project into a common
high-altitude endurance UAV system. But Capt. Paul Morgan, the service’s
UAS program manager, insisted that, at the moment, the Navy is not
considering that option.
“The Global Hawk is just an experiment,” he said. The
demonstration will employ two Global Hawks as test beds as the Navy
develops maritime ISR requirements for its BAMS UAS system.
In August, the Navy deployed the Global Hawk to support the USS
Kitty Hawk (CV 63) Carrier Strike Group in Joint Air and Sea Exercise
(JASEX) 2005 in the Western Pacific Ocean near Okinawa and Japan.
Starting November 10 through December 10, the platform will fly
with the USS Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group in Trident Warrior
2005 off the coast of Virginia.
The BAMS UAS is envisioned as providing 24-hour coverage over an
on-station range of 2,000 nautical miles. BAMS bases in five locations—Kaneohe,
Hawaii; Jacksonville, Fla.; Sigonella, Italy; Diego Garcia, in the
Indian Ocean, and Kadena, Okinawa—would permit worldwide maritime
Initially, the Navy had planned to field a BAMS by 2008, but that
goal was pushed out to 2013 for budgetary reasons. Weatherington,
however, said his task force is “working with the Navy to
pull BAMS back a little, and we’re looking at a couple of
options to do that.”
In June, the service completed sea trials with the Scan Eagle—another,
smaller long-endurance UAS—aboard the USS Cleveland (LPD 7).
The sea trials were part of a two-week exercise off the coast of
San Diego. The Scan Eagle, developed by Boeing and the In Situ Group,
completed four shipboard launches and captures, and provided real-time
video to ships participating in the exercise.
The Scan Eagle has a 10-foot wingspan and a length of four feet,
tiny compared to the Global hawk. Still, it can fly higher than
16,000 feet for more than 15 hours, and designers plan for future
versions to stay aloft for 30 hours.
The Navy plans to use the Scan Eagle to provide persistent ISR
coverage for expeditionary strike groups and to increase security
for oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. In 2004, it was deployed
with the I Marine Expeditionary Force to Iraq, where it flew more
than 3,600 combat flight hours. It provided Marines in Fallujah
with a real-time picture of the enemy, helping the Leathernecks
to attack insurgents with reduced exposure.
The Navy also is looking into the possibility of developing unmanned
systems to conduct aerial strike missions. In July, at Yuma Proving
Grounds, Ariz., Northrop Grumman launched 2.75-inch Hydra-class
rockets from the MQ-8B Fire Scout vertical-takeoff and landing tactical
UAS, which the service is evaluating for deployment on its future
Littoral Combat Ship, a small, fast vessel being designed for coastal
Recently, the Fire Scout was re-designated from RQ-8B to MQ-8B,
reflecting the aircraft’s multiple missions. It is an unmanned
helicopter that is designed to take off and land on unprepared landing
zones in the battlefield and on any aviation-capable warship, such
as an aircraft carrier, amphibious assault ship and possibly the
“Next spring, we’re going to get Fire Scout to Sea,”
The Navy’s planned fixed-wing combat UAV has been merged
with similar Air Force and Defense Advanced Research Project Agency
concepts into a X-47B Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System. J-UCAS,
as it is known, is now an Air Force-led program, Morgan said. It’s
primary mission will be persistent ISR, but is eventually will have
strike capability, he explained.
The J-UCAS program office plans a spiral development, with a first
flight in 2007, operational assessment the following year, initial
capability for ISR in 2015 and strike in 2020, Morgan said. The
prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, plans to produce three full-scale
X-47B demonstrators for the Navy and Air Force.
DRS Unmanned Technologies Inc. of Mineral Wells, Texas, has delivered
15 copies of a small UAS that is designed for maritime special operations.
With a length of six feet and a seven-foot wingspan, the system,
dubbed Neptune, is carried—disassembled—in a 72x30x20-inch
case that transforms into a pneumatic launcher.
The Neptune can be launched from small vessels and recovered in
open water. It can carry video cameras and other sensors or drop
small payloads. A fleet of 27 aircraft is planned.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is developing its own vertical-takeoff
UAS. The Eagle Eye is an unmanned version of Bell Helicopter’s
V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, which can take off and land like a helicopter
and fly like a fixed wing aircraft, explained Cmdr. Melissa Hofman.
The Eagle Eye is designed to operate from the decks of the Coast
Guard’s planned national security and offshore patrol cutters.
It is being built as part of the service’s long-term surface
and air acquisition program, which is known as Deepwater.
Eagle Eye completed its preliminary design review in January 2004,
Hofman said. The first flight is scheduled for 2007, with shipboard
tests the following year.
Ultimately, the Coast Guard would like to acquire 69 Eagle Eyes.
Their cameras, radar and other sensors will be useful particularly
in allowing cutter commanders to view the distant operations of
their boarding crews, Hoffman said. “A lot of skippers don’t
like not being able to see what’s going on. UASs can provide
Between 2005 and 2009, the Defense Department plans to spend $1.7
billion to fund 79 UAS-related research projects, according to the
roadmap. That is a significant increase over the $1.2 billion and
60 projects funded in 2000, the report said.
To help allay such expense, the Navy is marketing its systems to
U.S. allies around the world, said Rear Adm. Mark R. Milliken, director
of the service’s international programs office. Milliken’s
office has signed bilateral agreements with eight other nations,
allowing the Navy to share UAS information with them.
U.S. export rules, however, is making it difficult to release military
technology to some allies, such as new members of NATO. “We’re
working on that,” Milliken said.
Also, few foreign countries can afford large aircraft, he noted.
“We’re trying to emphasize smaller, cheaper systems.”