For Navy, More Unmanned Aircraft on the Horizon
By Grace Jean and Sandra I. Erwin
An unmanned combat aircraft that can operate from carrier decks would be of great utility to the Navy, but it appears to be unaffordable, at least for the time being, said a naval aviation expert.
“There is a natural need for a carrier based sensor platform with substantial endurance. It would reduce the demand for aircraft landings and takeoffs from a carrier,” said Owen R. Cote Jr., associate director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A joint Air Force-Navy program, known as the joint unmanned combat system, or JUCAS, was disbanded last year, because each service has entirely different requirements. The Navy was given control of the program, but not necessarily additional dollars to continue development. “The Navy was benefiting from a lot of Air Force money in the program,” said Cote. “The Navy has a real requirement but doesn’t have the money to do JUCAS in the near term.” Ultimately, the office of the defense secretary “will have a big involvement in solving this,” said Cote. One possible scenario is that, “if the Air Force doesn’t present a solid plan, funds will transfer to the Navy.”
The Navy, he added, “does not want to pay for JUCAS out of its budget. That would really be a hit.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael G. Mullen recently told reporters that the JUCAS development could take 10 to 15 years. “We are not walking away from the underpinnings of the joint program,” he said.
Capt. Paul Morgan, program manager for Navy-Marine Corps unmanned air systems at Patuxent River, Md., said he could not comment on the future of JUCAS. A Naval Air Systems Command spokeswoman also declined to comment.
The Navy, meanwhile, plans to move forward with plans to buy a large unmanned surveillance aircraft to supplement its fleet of piloted maritime patrol planes.
Program officials expect to launch an industry competition for the “broad area maritime surveillance” program in late 2007, Morgan said in an interview. The fleet may be composed of one or multiple variants of unmanned aircraft, he noted.
Mullen described BAMS as a “persistent, unblinking eye.” He predicted a “healthy future for unmanned aircraft in naval aviation. But I see no indication that we will be totally unmanned or totally manned.”
The BAMS unmanned vehicles will supplement the P-8A multi-mission maritime surveillance aircraft, which Boeing currently is building for the Navy under a $4 billion contract. The so-called MMA, which is a modified 737 jet, will replace 148 P-3 Orion aircraft.
“We’re looking to buy 108 MMAs and then to make up the difference with unmanned aircraft,” Thomas Laux, program executive officer, told the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement.
Competitors for BAMS include Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, and the Mariner — a team effort by Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
Flight tests for MMA are expected in 2009 with initial operational capability in 2013. Production costs for the entire fleet are estimated at $20 billion.
During the past year and a half, the Navy has whittled its P-3 force from 227 aircraft to 148.