A Balanced Fleet
Once a rarity, unmanned systems now play
a critical role in mission areas across the Navy
By DANIEL P. TAYLOR, Special Correspondent
Gaining the Advantage
the MQ- 8 has voice communications relay, electro-optical/infrared
(EO/IR) sensors and a laser designator, among other capabilities.
Navy spokesman Joe Gradisher
noted that the MQ-8B has been
continuously deployed to Kunduz
in Afghanistan, providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support to allied
You’ll have to go much higher
in the sky to find the next big
unmanned system to enter the
Navy fleet. The MQ-4C Triton —
In the meantime, the service has been flying a modified RQ- 4 Global Hawk known as the BAMS-Demonstrator, which has many of the characteristics of
the MQ-4C but lacks its 360-degree surveillance coverage. The Navy has been flying the aircraft over the
Strait of Hormuz since January 2009 for what was supposed to be a temporary deployment, but the service
liked it so much it plans to keep BAMS-D flying until
the MQ-4C is ready to take its place.
“[BAMS-D] is primarily focused on providing the
fleet with a high-altitude, long-dwell ISR rapid technology demonstration capability,” Gradisher said.
BAMS-D has been feeding imagery and other data
by satellite to the Navy’s ground segment. A total of
four BAMS-D aircraft are equipped with EO/IR cameras, maritime-enabled synthetic aperture radar, automatic identification system receivers and electronic
support measures payloads, Gradisher said. Despite
being located in U.S. Central Command, it is controlled at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md.
The U.S. Navy ultimately wants a family of unmanned systems
that integrate seamlessly with today’s fleet.
■ Among the service’s goals is to increase access, persistence
■ Every platform should be a sensor, and every sensor needs to
■ Data must be accessible to all, allowing commanders to quickly
find and exploit necessary intelligence.
Just a decade ago, unmanned platforms in the Navy were a new-age novelty. Today, unmanned systems and sensors play a crucial role in fleet operations.
Take, for example, the MQ-8B Fire Scout, which
already has made its presence felt on the high seas as
well as on land. The aircraft — a small helicopter
derived from the Schweizer 333 airframe — has multiple deployments aboard frigates under its belt and also
deployed with special operations forces. It first
deployed in 2009, three years after its first flight.
The MQ-8B will have a starring role aboard the
Littoral Combat Ship as more of those ships deploy,
and the Navy expects to buy 168 aircraft over the life
of the program. Furthermore, the Navy is developing
the MQ-8C, an effort to take the “guts” of the Fire
Scout and put them inside a Bell 407 helicopter to
boost the endurance of the platform.
The program has had its share of growing pains.
Early on it struggled with reliability problems with its
datalink, and the Director of Operational Test and
Evaluation (DOT&E) slammed the program in a 2011
report. However, the next year, DOT&E’s report
reflected improvements in the program.
Besides offering 110 nautical miles of range from
the launch site and 12 continuous hours of operation,