Chief of Naval Operations Upbeat on Unmanned Systems
The Navy’s top officer is expressing satisfaction with the initial tests and deployments of several unmanned aircraft prototypes. A long-term goal is to field a squadron of drones to operate aboard aircraft carriers later this decade.
Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, said that he was “extraordinarily pleased” with the initial flights of the Northrop Grumman Corp.-built X-47B unmanned combat system demonstrator. Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., May 13, Roughead said the tail-less airplane has performed well in its first three flights at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and has executed “dead-on” landings, which is a crucial characteristic for operating aboard carrier flight decks.
The demonstration program is expected to feed technologies into the Navy’s development of an unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike system, or UCLASS, to operate in tandem with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornets.
“We remain committed to getting a squadron of UCLASS aboard an aircraft carrier by 2018,” said Roughead. He added that there is good focus on the program to achieve deployment of that squadron in seven years — a rapid timeline especially given budgetary pressures and the technical challenges of controlling the aircraft in a dense electromagnetic shipboard environment.
The admiral also discussed the trial deployments of the Fire Scout, the vertical take-off and landing UAV, also built by Northrop Grumman. The unmanned helicopter is operating aboard a frigate in support of special operations forces in the Middle East, “amassing hours and missions at a steady rate,” he said. Because of the capability demonstrated there, the Navy also has deployed several rotorcraft into Afghanistan to support ground troops, he added.
As the Navy pushes into the unmanned systems world, Roughead emphasized that any drone it develops has to be flexible and agile to support all Defense Department troops. “We’re not going to be constrained by saying it’s a naval capability, it will operate on naval ships,” he said. “If someone says, ‘I need VTUAV detachment,’ you pick it, we’ll provide that. It may be on a ship. It may be ashore, or it may be on some platform off the coast of some country. It gives tremendous potential for maritime domain awareness.”
The Navy continues to fly the broad area maritime surveillance, or BAMS, demonstrator in the Middle East. “It is worth its weight in gold,” Roughead said. The MQ-4C BAMS, the maritime derivative of Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, will complement the Navy’s fleet of P-8A Poseidon aircraft, based on a modified Boeing 737 to conduct anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
“We’re continuing that program in our budget because that’s going to give us the long dwell that we need,” he said. That the Navy’s future unmanned aircraft are physically flying and are not just concepts on paper will help ensure the systems make the transition from research and development programs into production, he said. “At a time when budgets are going to be very challenging, you can touch everything I talked about. You can physically put your hand on it. I’m pleased, because those things that exist in PowerPoint may have a problem crossing the Valley of Death,” Roughead said, referring to the gap that has engulfed many science and technology efforts that could not transition into products.
There also has been progress in power capabilities for underwater robotic technologies. Roughead previously hadreached out to the research and development community for help in improving the safety and duration of battery technology for UUVs. During the presentation, he said he was “extraordinarily pleased” with the response from scientists and the resulting improvements in power duration.
Still, there are challenges ahead for the Navy’s unmanned system aspirations. Delays in programs could jeopardize the gains that have been made to date, Roughead warned. Development cycles need to be compressed if the sea service is to meet the stringent goals officials have set for deploying unmanned systems to the fleet.
A perennial challenge for all unmanned aircraft is the communication network. Existing datalinks for controlling the systems and offloading sensor data are saturated. “We have to have a very serious discussion — we are in the Navy — about what the bandwidth requirements are, what the network requirements are, as these new systems come on,” he said. Navy officials are taking a hard look at that problem, he added.
They are also examining how the drones will be introduced into the fleet. While other services have elected to separate unmanned aircraft into their own organizations with dedicated operators, the Navy is planning to incorporate the systems into existing manned aircraft squadrons. The Fire Scout VT-UAVs, for example, will become part of the Navy’s helicopter squadrons; the BAMS aircraft will fall into the P-8 squadrons, said Roughead.
In response to questions, the Navy tells National Defense that the composition of a UCLASS detachment aboard the aircraft carrier will be accomplished after the design concept is selected in mid-2012. UCLASS will be assigned as part of the carrier air wing either as a detachment operating independently or as an integral part of an existing manned squadron, said Lt. Jennifer Womble, deputy public affairs officer to the Chief of Naval Operations. The integration of UCLASS with manned carrier-based aircraft will be informed by lessons learned from the fielding of the VT-UAV and BAMS, she added.
On the bandwidth and networks side of operating unmanned systems in the maritime environment, the challenge lies in developing "a cost-effective architecture for tasking, collection, processing, exploitation, and dissemination," Womble said. The Navy needs to resolve a number of questions before any such architecture can be implemented, including how many and what kind of afloat data links will be required to enable UAS operations and what bandwidth the data links will need to support.
“The ability to accumulate ISR data will always outstrip the ability to transport it. Not all data needs to be delivered in real time. How will ISR data be prioritized to make use of limited bandwidth during peacetime operations or in a contested RF environment? Such questions need to be considered within the context of the Navy as a whole, rather than within the context of individual programs or platforms,” she said.
The CNO’s Strategic Studies Group, comprising Navy and Coast Guard captains and Marine Corps and Air Force colonels at the Naval War College, will examine requirements for communications and networking for operation of unmanned systems within its current theme of studying the Navy's future computing and information environment.