Navy’s New Drones Taking Center Stage

By Valerie Insinna

Ask a layman to name an unmanned aerial vehicle, and he will probably cite one of the armed drones used by the Air Force, such as the Predator or Reaper. Naval UAVs used for reconnaissance, such as the ScanEagle and Raven, have stayed mostly out of the public eye.

The Navy finally is developing its own custom unmanned air systems, with the service planning on fielding four new aircraft in the next few years. The coming decade may yield naval UAVs that become just as famous as their Air Force counterparts — that is, if the service has the funding to do it.

Some of these UAVs will incorporate revolutionary and somewhat risky technologies, such as a system that will autonomously take off and land from a moving aircraft carrier.

But money, or the lack thereof, could throw a wrench into the equation, said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis at the Teal Group.

“The Navy has the advantage of buying UAVs later than the other services, so it will be able to learn from their experiences and take advantage of operational and technological advances,” he told National Defense in an email. “However, the difficulty comes in ramping up funding for three major UAV programs at the same time.”

These programs include the land-based MQ-4C Triton surveillance aircraft, the MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopter, and the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS).

Both the Triton and Fire Scout are manufactured by Northrop Grumman. The Navy was scheduled to release in September a request for proposals for UCLASS after months of delays.

With Triton set to move into production, the UCLASS program needing increased funding for development and purchases of the Fire Scout ramping up in coming years, the Navy will have its work cut out for itself, Finnegan said. “That is quite a challenge in an environment in which carrier reductions are being raised.”

Yet with the military’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, the Navy is facing a rising demand for unmanned aerial vehicles, he added. “It will need increased surveillance to protect the fleet from the higher threat level in these areas, and it will be in the forefront of gathering ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] in areas in which the U.S. may not have access to bases.”

The Navy has structured its UAS to partner with complementary piloted aircraft. Triton is paired with the upcoming P-8 Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft that will perform anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. Fire Scout will work alongside SH-60 Seahawk helicopters on the littoral combat ship. UCLASS will operate on the same carrier decks as F-18 Super Hornet fighter jets.

In the past decade, the Navy relied on piloted assets such as P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft or F-18s to help collect intelligence. The aim with manned-unmanned teaming is to free up those planes to do more complex missions while UAVs handle ISR, said Navy Capt. Chris Corgnati, branch head for the unmanned aerial systems requirements and resources in the office of the chief of naval operations.

Naval aviators will pilot both manned aircraft and the corresponding unmanned systems, he said.

“The expertise that you need to operate these things are the same,” Corgnati said. “You have to understand the environment, [and] you’ve got to understand the mission whether you’re flying a P-3 or P-8 or you’re flying a Triton remotely.”

The UCLASS is the only naval UAS with a contract still up for grabs. That aircraft will be able to take off from an aircraft carrier, gather intelligence, attack targets and autonomously come back to the moving vessel — all without disrupting normal operations on the flight deck.
Boeing, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were awarded $15 million contracts in August to conduct preliminary design reviews. 

Northrop Grumman may already have a leg up on the competition. In the past year, its X-47B demonstrator aircraft was the first UAV to ever accomplish catapult launches as well as autonomous touch-and-go and arrested landings on a moving aircraft carrier. With contracts for Fire Scout and Triton already in hand, an award for UCLASS would be a major win for the company.

UCLASS’s primary duty will be ISR collection, but it also will be able to strike targets with joint direct attack munitions and the small diameter bomb II, according to requirements documents obtained by the U.S. Naval Institute News.

“It’s really going to make the carrier airwing more effective, more lethal and more survivable,” Corgnati said.

Navy procurement officials want to buy as many vehicles as needed to provide 24/7 coverage at a “tactically significant range,” said Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, the service’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. If USNI’s requirements documents are correct, that means it must be able to complete two 600-nautical mile orbits at a cost of less than $150 million.

Winter said the system could reach initial operational capability as early as 2018. The service requested $146 million in research-and-development funding as part of its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal.

UCLASS has come under fire by those within the Navy who believe its requirements have been scaled back too far, leaving it vulnerable to cancelation. Initial requirements for aerial refueling were dropped, stealth attributes have been cut down, and the payload size has been reduced since the program’s inception.

Dyke Weatherington, director of unmanned warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the office of the secretary of defense, said those changes were the result of the service weighing its needs against budgetary constraints. “Especially in this fiscal environment, DoD can’t afford to start programs that we can’t finish,” he said.

The UCLASS isn’t the only aircraft that will include novel capabilities. The MQ-4C Triton built by Northrop is planned to be the first naval drone to include a sense-and-avoid system to keep it from colliding with other aircraft, but the Navy in August announced it had halted work on the system, which is built by Exelis.

The Navy is waiting for Northrop Grumman officials to brief it on possible fixes, said Capt. Jim Hoke, Triton program manager. All options, including recompeting the system, are on the table.

“We are not carving out that requirement,” he said. “We just have to make sure it’s the right system, it’s an affordable system and that it’s going to take care of the things that we need it to take care of. So we have not answered those questions yet, which is why we’ve had to take a pause right now.”

Fielding a sense-and-avoid system would have implications not only for the Navy, but also for the other services and the UAV industry as a whole. Such radars will be mandatory before unmanned aircraft are able to fly in airspace where civilian aircraft operate.

Even without a sense-and-avoid system, the combination of Triton and P-8 aircraft will be a step up from the P-3s currently used to conduct maritime surveillance. The Triton will be able to cover 2 million square miles of ocean in a 24-hour mission, Hoke said.

“The way we used to cover a lot of ocean in a P-3 is we would be flying around out there at about 1,000 feet,” he said. “The sensors weren’t that good. A lot of it was searching with your eyeballs, trying to stay alert, trying to stay awake. We won’t have that anymore with the Triton.”

“What Triton will be able to do is get that maritime picture, and then when there are things that the warfare commander, the forward commanders are concerned about, they can send a manned platform out there to get a closer look and to take care of things if they need to,” Hoke continued.

Triton has already been a victim of funding delays. The Navy shifted $25 million from the fiscal year 2014 budget request to the following year, pushing back Triton’s production until 2015.

Meanwhile, the Navy is scheduled in October to conduct the first test flights of the larger version of the Fire Scout helicopter, the MQ-8C. The aircraft has three times the endurance and twice the payload of its smaller brother. The Navy wants to buy 28 MQ-8C aircraft for its special forces.

The smaller MQ-8B will be deployed aboard the LCS 3 USS Fort Worth in November 2013. “We’re tracking to get onboard the LCS 2 or LCS 4 in 2014,” said Capt. Pat Smith, the Navy’s Fire Scout program manager.

That aircraft is also getting a new Telephonics AN/ZPY-4 radar and may soon be adding laser-guided rockets. A Fire Scout outfitted with the advanced precision kill weapons system hit 11 of 12 targets during testing at China Lake, Calif., Smith said. More testing is needed, and officials have not decided on when the weapons would be deployed on a ship.

A wildcard in the mix is the RQ-21A Small Tactical Unmanned Air System manufactured by Insitu. Both the Navy and Marine Corps plan on buying the system, but only the Marine Corps has included funding in its fiscal year 2014 budget.

Although the Navy deferred funding for the program, the service still remains interested in the RQ-21, Corgnati said.

The RQ-21A was designed based on feedback from its predecessor, Insitu’s
ScanEagle, said Ryan Hartman, the company’s senior vice president of programs. Customers wanted the ability to integrate more and bigger payloads than what could fit into the ScanEagle nose and mid-bay compartment.

The RQ-21 is typically delivered with an empty payload bay, which can be used for radar, communications relay, electronics warfare payloads or other systems. The nose turret houses a camera used to collect full-motion video, Hartman said. The Navy’s version will include the automatic identification system, which will give the RQ-21 the ability to locate nearby vessels and report them back to the Navy.

Like the Triton and Fire Scout, the RQ-21 would provide the Navy with ISR, but it has some unique advantages. Unlike Triton, the aircraft can be launched from a ship, and it is less noisy and noticeable than the larger Fire Scout.

Initial operation, testing and evaluation will conclude by the end of this year, and Insitu is preparing for initial operating capability in early 2014, Hartman said.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Procurement, Defense Department, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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