For a long time surface ships were the only effective instrument to wage war at sea apart from coastal artillery in coastal regions. Submarines and naval aviation (deck and land-based) radically changed naval warfare and fleet activity. The development and introduction of a large variety of unmanned underwater and aerial vehicles signifies the beginning of a new phase of radical changes to the fleet structures of leading naval powers.
Underwater drones are at the very beginning of development, and it will take a considerable amount of time before they begin to play a significant role in naval operations. In contrast, unmanned maritime aerial systems are undergoing a period of rapid development. Within the structure of the U.S. Navy, they are already playing an important role, which will grow significantly over the next decade. Many maritime powers are trying to catch up in their development, paying close enough attention to unmanned maritime systems.
It is worth noting that, similar to manned aircraft, the goals and capabilities of different classes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) may vary significantly. One classification, used by the Ministry of Defense of the United Kingdom, divides UAVs into three categories on the basis of an aircraft’s maximum gross take-off weight. Class I unmanned aircraft weigh less than 150 kg, Class II – from 150 to 600 kg, and Class III – more than 600 kg. This classification is highly conditional, since Class III includes vehicles with diverse capabilities, such as a strategic reconnaissance UAV MQ-4C Triton (maximum take-off weight – about 15 tons) or a tactical helicopter-type UAV MQ-8B Fire Scout (maximum take-off weight – 1,400 kg).
The main advantage of unmanned aerial systems is their much smaller size compared to manned ones, which allows for increasing ship-based air groups and deploying UAV groups on ships ill-adapted for basing manned aircraft. In addition, the drones have a cost advantage over their manned counterparts. In addition, drones can stay in the air much longer than manned helicopters and airplanes. Finally, the use of UAVs in field conditions saves pilots’ lives.
“Strategic” UAVs at Sea
In May 2013, we witnessed a number of successful launches of UAVs created under the programs by the U.S. Navy’s “strategic” unmanned maritime systems (given their size, cost and range of missions they are often referred to as HALE – High Altitude, Long Endurance). On May 14, 2013, a Northrop Grumman X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) demonstrator completed its first ever catapult launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). This UCAS is one of the two test vehicles created by Northrop Grumman under a contract awarded in 2007 by the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command for the Navy program UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration). This program is intended to complete the Navy’s carrier launch and recovery objectives as well as autonomous aerial refueling. Tests on the in-flight refueling are to take place before October 1, 2014.
The UCAS-D precedes Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, involving the creation of a low-profile heavy deck drone. These UAVs will be used to carry out reconnaissance missions and deliver strikes at ground targets. Given the development of anti-ship missiles, submarines and other so-called "Access Restriction Systems", great hopes are ascribed to the UCLASS drones. Experts and American officials believe that the future of carrier-based aircraft and the U.S. Navy component will depend on the creation of a strike drone with a large (approximately 1,800 km) combat radius. The UCLASS Research and Development program, worth $ 2.3 billion, is to begin in 2013 and the developed drones are expected to be up to combat readiness before 2020.
However, there are concerns that the UCLASS program may degenerate into developing a deck drone, oriented towards intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance at the detriment of its strike capabilities. Besides, the developed UCLASS aircraft may be inferior to the existing X-47B in terms of the number of “stealth” technologies used. One of the leading American naval experts, Brian McGrath, voiced concerns that UCLASS drones could be a carrier-based analog of Predator type combat UAV. It is worth recalling that General Atomics, which is the creator of the Predator family, participates in the UCLASS program with Sea Avenger. Such UAVs will undoubtedly strengthen U.S. naval aviation, but will not be able to operate effectively should the enemy possess advanced “Access Restriction Systems.” Speaking about the reasons for opposing the creation of a truly imperceptible strike UAV, McGrath notes competition within the program to build the fifth generation F-35C carrier-based strike fighter, which is to operate on “the first day of the war,” the reduction of military spending in the U.S., as well as the conservatism of naval aviation command.
The second type of “strategic” UAS, which will soon become an important tool of the U.S. Navy, is a Northrop Grumman long-range land-based reconnaissance MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system, which made its maiden flight on May 22, 2013. This UAS is created as part of Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program on the basis of USAF RQ-4B Global Hawk drone.
With endurance up to 28 hours, four MQ-4C systems have the ability to provide persistent maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage of wide oceanographic and littoral zones at a mission radius of 2,000 nm. The MQ-4C will also be able to serve as a relay station to maintain communication among dispersed forces in the theater of operations. The MQ-4C is meant to work in concert with Boeing 737-derived land-based patrol aircraft P-8 Poseidon. Since UAVs will complement the P-8A in sea surveillance and reconnaissance, Poseidon will be able to focus on other tasks, such as conducting anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and shipping interdiction.
The Navy plans to buy 70 aircraft, including two test vehicles for a total cost of U.S. $13.2 billion (including 3.3 billion spent on R&D) and the final cost of the drone’s production version is U.S. $189 million. Australia officially confirmed its interest in acquiring the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft by announcing the issuance of a Letter of Request (LOR). In addition, there is a possibility that India, which currently buys P-8A, will also want to acquire the MQ-4C too. With formal operational capability beginning in 2016, the Navy plans to deploy the MQ-4C Triton in the Middle East to patrol the service’s 5th Fleet area of responsibility where the single Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) is currently in the region. Once Triton enters the 5th Fleet, additional orbits will begin in the 7th Fleet from Guam, then in the 6th Fleet in Sigonella (Italy) and finally on the continental U.S.
Heavy Tactical Maritime UAVs
Costly “strategic” maritime UAVs are complemented by significantly cheaper heavy tactical unmanned autonomous helicopters, which may become yhe workhorse of naval aviation, supplementing ordinary helicopters.
The most striking example of these drones is the MQ-8B Fire Scout, which was developed by Northrop Grumman on the basis of the Schweizer/Sikorsky S-333 light helicopter. This UAV takes up half the space of a standard U.S. Navy deck helicopter MH-60R Seahawk, and can perform many of the tasks assigned to the helicopter. UAV dimensions significantly increase the number of vehicles surface ships can accommodate. Littoral combat ships (LCS), which are the main carriers of these UAVs, will almost always have one or two Fire Scouts complementing manned Seahawks. And the frigate has a large enough flight deck and hangar to base four MQ-8Bs. It should be noted that these UAVs will be used primarily not as a replacement, but in addition to manned aircraft. Thus, the study sought to determine the best composition of aircraft for the LCS in cost-effectiveness terms, showed that a mixed air group for the LCS AvDet was preferable to the air group consisting only of helicopters or UAVs.
Keeping the systems, electronics and ground control stations developed for the MQ-8B, Northrop Grumman has developed a larger MQ-8C UAV based on the Bell 407 Jet Ranger. A demonstrator was developed at company expense to show off the concept. The Pentagon was impressed, and in 2012 Northrop was awarded a contract for the first batch of up to 30 MQ-8C Fire Scouts using the basic Jet Ranger instead of MQ-8Bs. The new Fire Scout version differs in its increased maximum take-off weight (2 tons more), almost twice as large payload (500 kg), higher speed (approximately 260 km/h) and a longer duration of the flight (up to 11-14 hours). MQ-8C test flights are due to start in September this year, and combat readiness is to be reached by the end of 2014. Due to the increased size and significantly improved performance characteristics, the Navy plans frigate deployments with three MQ-8Cs rather than the now-standard four MQ-8Bs.
A similar development program for the French Navy is currently carried out by Boeing together with DCNS and Thales. The completion of successful test trials of H-6U Unmanned Little Bird helicopter based on the Boeing MD-530A was announced in the fall of 2012. H-6U is a hybrid aircraft and can be used both as a UAV and a manned helicopter.
The main functions of MQ-8 are reconnaissance and target designation, but the Navy also plans to integrate into the UAV the advance precision kill weapon system (APKWS) of 2.75in rockets.
Helicopter-type UAVs have certain limitations on their duration and flight distance that calls forth developing medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, which may be based on small ships. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) program to develop a UAV that would carry a 600-pound payload and have an operational radius of 600 to 900 nautical miles from its host vessel. The launch and recovery system would have to fit littoral combat ships and other surface combat vessels as feasible. TERN UAVs will be required to perform both reconnaissance and strike functions.
Light Tactical UAVs
Alongside with heavier UAVs, light reconnaissance drones find their place on the deck of the ships. One such drone is a fixed-wing unmanned aircraft ScanEagle produced by a Boeing subsidiary Insitu, Inc. The ScanEagle entered service with the U.S. Navy in 2005, and a number of other fleets operate the UAV successfully. In 2012, Singapore acquired a number of ScanEagle unmanned aircraft systems for its Navy. By July 2011 ScanEagle systems had accumulated more than 56 thousand combat sorties and 500 thousand combat flight hours. The UAV had flown nearly 250,000 hours under the Naval Air Systems Command’s ISR services contract, and their total number in the U.S. Navy now exceeds 120 units. It is noteworthy that the Navy does not buy the ScanEagle UAVs, and takes advantage of their services within the framework of the contract with the manufacturer.
The above UAVs preceded the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS) program to build a larger unmanned reconnaissance system RQ-21A Integrator for the Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. The STUAS program contract for its Integrator UAS was awarded to Insitu in 2010. The maximum take-off weight of the drone is about 60 kg. On April 9, 2013 Insitu Inc. announced the successful first maritime flight of RQ-21A. The Navy plans to buy 36 STUAS systems, each consisting of five UAVs.
Unlike the United States, the development of unmanned maritime systems in Russia is just beginning. And while adopting “strategic” drones remains a matter of a long-term outlook, the development of tactical UAVs of various ranges is already underway. As to the naval UAVs, it is worth mentioning the “Gorizont Air” S-100 model based on Camcopter S-100, which Rostov-on-Don-based Gorizont, Inc. demonstrated in 2011 at the International Maritime Defense Show in St. Petersburg. The company assembles the UAV under the license of Austrian Schiebel. These drones are already actively exploited by the French Navy and the fleets of other countries, including, according to some reports, China.
"Gorizont Air" is a helicopter-type UAV with a maximum take-off weight of 200 kg, which can be used for day and night patrols, surveillance and monitoring on land and at sea, search and rescue operations, participate in tackling natural and man-made disasters, as well as border defense. Moreover, S-100 can be armed: The Thales Lightweight Multi-Role Missile (LMM) successfully completed trials on Schiebel Camcopter UAVs. Now the drone is undergoing certification.
In November 2012 the first set of S-100 UAVs was delivered for trial operations to the Coast Guard of the Border Guard Service of the Federal Security Service of Russia. The Russian Navy also made a preliminary decision on the purchase of one set of the “Gorizont Air” UAV to carry out an operational test. Interest in these UAVs was expressed by the Ministry of the Interior of Russia as well.
The development of unmanned systems is not Russia’s priority in naval construction, which is explained by the technological lag in this sphere and the urgent necessity of updating the fleet. However, the development of unmanned systems will strengthen fleet aviation, the Coast Guard and other agencies. By carrying out surveillance and intelligence functions maritime UAVs will contribute to safeguarding Russia’s national interests in the great oceans.