Navy Poised to Select New Combat Drone

By Sandra I. Erwin

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 over-the-horizon tasks.

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 (UCAV).

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 happen.

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 said.

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 extensive modifications."

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 program.

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."

Topics: Budget, Navy News, Air Power

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.