The U.S. Navy has ambitious plans to deploy new families of unmanned aircraft over the next decade.
Rear Adm. Dewolfe “Chip” Miller, director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities in the office of the deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance, called the Navy’s unmanned aviation model a hybrid.
It partly follows the Air Force model of “ISR reach back,” which means sending data collected by aircraft sensors back to network nodes for analysis. It also takes after the Army model of tactical ISR by bridging the information forward to the fighting unit.
Interoperability will be a significant challenge for the Navy, however. The Navy has not yet tightly integrated its unmanned air systems (UAS) within ship operations, and that is needed in order to effectively operate the UAS that will work in conjunction with manned aircraft, radars and weapon systems. The integration of UAS within a common operating picture will take time and money.
Budgets could be a factor in whether current programs survive. A case in point is the cancellation of the Navy’s medium-range UAS program in February. That was just days after senior Navy leaders mentioned that requirements remain valid. The Navy had budgeted $1.2 billion.
Of the current naval family of UAS, the broad area maritime surveillance (BAMS) aircraft is the largest investment by the Navy to date, and its most important unmanned aviation program.
The current MQ-4C BAMS-D, a demonstrator, is a limited version and has performed well, but is coming to an end. BAMS will make its first flight this fall.
The program has two goals: maritime patrol and reconnaissance, and persistent maritime ISR. The Navy needs more maritime ISR, and its P-3 and P-8 manned aircraft won’t meet that need, which leaves it up to BAMS to fill the gap. It should be operational in 2016, and 68 aircraft are to be delivered by 2022.
The Navy expects to reduce costs by pooling resources with the Air Force’s Global Hawk. The Navy had to look hard at reusing and leveraging what the Air Force had already acquired.
An important characteristic of BAMS is that a sense-and-avoid payload has been developed. This is an important technology that could be adapted for other aircraft in the military inventory.
There are still questions about the operational concept of BAMS. Aviators have criticized the fact that the airframe will suffer great stress as the aircraft continuously switches from a higher, wide ISR orbit to a lower, closer orbit. This might result in more limited ISR than expected.
Going forward, BAMS will be used for a number of missions, including signals intelligence and airborne communications relay.
Cmdr. Craig Dorrans, BAMS deputy team lead, says no antisubmarine warfare role is planned although a program life expectancy of 20 years could support such a mission one day.
Another key UAS effort for the Navy is the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.
The future of UCLASS depends on the success of the Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) aircraft carrier demonstration (UCAS-D) that seeks to prove that carrier-based unmanned aviation is possible.
UCAS-D Program Manager Jamie Engdahl said the project is ahead of schedule. The goal is a high-altitude UAS that takes off and lands from an aircraft carrier, can do precision landing on a moving deck, and mid-air refueling.
UCAS-D has 40 percent common requirements with manned systems such as the Joint Strike Fighter, including landing gear, propulsion and wing fold. As a demonstrator, it will be limited in functionality, with no lethal testing or command-and-control software integration with the carrier information and intelligence systems.
Northrop Grumman is providing the aircraft for UCAS-D, and in 2011, the top four contractors — The Boeing Co., General Atomics, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. — were each awarded $500,000 contracts for design and performance studies. A new BAA in mid 2012 is anticipated for UCLASS
UCLASS could include four to six aircraft per carrier. The Navy’s five-year, $2.3 billion development funding plan for the UCLASS program, according to service budget documents, includes $122 million in 2013, $144 million in 2014, $674 million in 2015, $777 million in 2016, and $611 million in 2017.
UCLASS could gain importance as the Navy and Air Force fine-tune details of their “air-sea battle” plan on how to equip future forces for a major conflict against a peer competitor. But budget uncertainty is likely to delay the UCLASS program beyond the current goal of a limited operational capability by 2020.
Miller said that installation and certification of unmanned aerial systems onto ships is likely to take some time, and this is an important component that UCAS-D does not fully address.
In the immediate future, the Navy must contend with more pressing challenges in its vertical-takeoff and landing (VTOL) UAS fleet, the Fire Scout.
The MQ-8B Fire Scout has been an expensive program but has shown that a ship-based VTOL is critical. It has been operating from several vessels, and concepts of operations and experience have been gained. But two separate incidents in early April 2012 forced the Navy to restrict Fire Scout operations until the reasons for a critical malfunction and a forced crash are discovered.
The limited range of MQ-8B and abbreviated time to develop a new platform to respond to VTOL needs has prompted Northrop Grumman to partner with Bell Helicopter to quickly enhance its VTOL offering: the MQ-8C. Although the airframe is different, it relies on Bell’s proven hardware and avionics, while being compatible with many of the Fire Scout subsystems.
Because of the software commonalities between the two platforms, the Navy is calling it an upgrade.
The Navy needs VTOL aircraft for counter-mine missions from the Littoral Combat Ship, anti-submarine warfare and airborne relay. A total of 168 unmanned VTOL aircraft are planned for the 55 ships that the Navy expects to buy.
The weaponization of the Fire Scout and radar equipment is already well under way, and shows the need for a versatile platform. It is surprising to see that the Navy has not sought a smaller, quieter, cheaper and more nimble unmanned VTOL aircraft, as most foreign navies have.
An urgent requirement of 28 MQ-8Cs for U.S. Special Operations Command is likely to set a strong precedent for Northrop’s platform as the choice for future procurement.
The Navy also is closely watching the Marine Corps’ cargo VTOL program. The Lockheed K-Max has already moved more than 400 tons in combat operations.
Another program that is being watched closely is the Small Tactical UAS, or STUAS, a Navy/Marine Corps effort. The selected aircraft was Insitu’s Integrator UAS. The aircraft could be armed, although the Navy has not mentioned plans to do so. The Army learned the hard way that the Shadow was a great eye in the sky but could have been more effective if it had the ability to be a “hand” in the sky.
By 2020, STUAS should account for half of all UAVs in the Navy’s inventory.
In the research-and-development arena, the Office of Naval Research has set aside $75 million for a naval VTOL prototype — that is called the Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System — to be used for a number of functions, from rapid resupply to medical evacuation.
Program Manager Mary Cummings, a former Air Force fighter pilot and now a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, said the focus is command-and-control and scalable software architecture.
“ONR anticipates the first spin-off out of AACUS will be focused on providing value to war fighters through delivering improved capability for manned rotorcrafts to land in brown-out conditions,” Cummings said. “The real risk to ONR is not if we will be able to do it, but how fast and how precise we can deliver on it.”
In addition to UAS procurements, the Navy has been in the market for fee-for-service ISR. A $750 million contract for unmanned-aircraft ISR services shows that the Navy might favor these arrangements in the future, especially for small UAS. Small and mid-size UAS have a shorter life than large ones, and there are so many out there that it might be beneficial to have access to different platforms through contracts to multiple awardees.
This is exactly what the Navy did by splitting the work among AAI (Shadow UAV), Insitu (ScanEagle UAV) and CSC (Arcturus UAV).
With a higher number of unmanned aircraft in use, interoperability among systems will become increasingly important.
The Navy is arguably in a strong position to take the lead on interoperability, since it has experience doing so with surface combatants such as the Aegis-class ships. Attack submarines have had advanced open architectures for decades.
The Navy has taken on a tough task to analyze various common control initiatives: the Naval Air Systems Command’s Common Control System, the Defense Department’s UAS Control Segment and the Air Force UAS Command and Control initiative.
Antoine Martin is a business consultant and principal of Unmanned Vehicles Systems Consulting, LLC. He can be reached at Antoine.Martin@UVS-Consulting.com.