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UAV squadron to stand up Oct. 1; 1st since 2007

Feb. 5, 2013 - 10:14AM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 5, 2013 - 10:14AM  |  
An MQ-4C Triton prepares for an upcoming test phase in June at Northrop Grumman's facility in Palmdale, Calif. The Navy has announced plans to create a squadron to fly the UAV.
An MQ-4C Triton prepares for an upcoming test phase in June at Northrop Grumman's facility in Palmdale, Calif. The Navy has announced plans to create a squadron to fly the UAV. (Northrop Grumman)
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After years of testing and providing surveillance in 5th Fleet, the Navy is creating the first squadron to fly long-range unmanned surveillance planes.

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After years of testing and providing surveillance in 5th Fleet, the Navy is creating the first squadron to fly long-range unmanned surveillance planes.

Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19, or VUP-19, will operate the MQ-4C Triton, an unmanned aerial vehicle with a 130-foot wingspan that can fly more than 10 miles high and spend 28 hours aloft. The craft is part of the service's Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program.

It's the first time since 2007, when Training Air Wing 6 UAV Detachment flew its last RQ-2 Pioneer sortie, that the Navy has had a unit exclusively dedicated to flying unmanned aircraft.

The squadron is named after Patrol Squadron 19 and will take its nickname, "Big Red." VP-19 flew P-3 Orions and was disestablished in August 1991. VUP-19 will stand up Oct. 1 at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., its base, and will have a detachment at Point Mugu at Naval Base Ventura County, Calif.

Once operational, it's expected to provide long-range, long-endurance maritime patrol coverage for Naval Air Forces Atlantic; 5th, 6th and 7th fleets; Fleet Forces Command operations in the Atlantic; Task Force 80; and, when needed, support U.S. Northern and Southern commands.

It's estimated there will be 108 officers and 290 enlisted in the squadron. Of those, 104 officers and 126 enlisted will be at Jacksonville, with the rest at Point Mugu, said AIRLANT spokesman Cmdr. Phil Rosi.

VUP-19 is expected to set up three "orbits" for the Triton to patrol. Each orbit is expected to have four aircraft and a runway, and Big Red will be responsible for ones in 5th, 6th and 7th fleets. In all, the Navy eventually wants five orbits around the globe, and each orbit will have forward-deployed Tritons, as well as sailors who will have line-of-sight control when the UAVs take off and land. Air vehicle operators will head to the various operational bases on a rotational basis.

"While the final construct is still being worked, the current plan is that each supported orbit will be operated by 10 crews, manned with P-8 experienced pilots, [naval flight officers and naval aircrewman operators]," Rosi said.

The number of planes, manning and other details may change as the program continues to develop, he added.

Navy officials have said the Triton will be forward-deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, for a Western Pacific orbit; Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy, to cover parts of Europe and Africa; Beale Air Force Base, Calif., to cover most of the continental U.S., Mexico and parts of Canada; and Jacksonville to cover the eastern U.S., Caribbean, Central America and parts of South America. The Navy wants another base in U.S. Central Command but has not said where.

VUP-19's aircraft will be controlled from Jacksonville, and each control station can handle three aircraft simultaneously.

Triton operators will likely come from the P-8A Poseidon aircrews after they complete a tour in that aircraft. The Poseidon is a manned maritime patrol plane that was officially unveiled in March to replace the P-3. Alongside the Triton, the Poseidon is expected to provide an unprecedented level of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance coverage. Despite the close relationship between the two aircraft, Rosi said there aren't any plans to create a composite squadron that operates both platforms.

Outside of operations, there will be a maintenance rotation of 43 enlisted sailors from aviation machinist's mate, structural mechanic, electronics technician and electrician's mate ratings, Rosi said.

Both Jacksonville and Point Mugu are already becoming Triton hotspots. Jacksonville has a Triton training facility and is also home to the Poseidon. Legislators recently authorized the Navy to build a training facility for Triton maintainers at Point Mugu, where the VUP-19 detachment will be based. Rosi said that this will be a "maintenance hub."

A Navy memo announcing the creation of VUP-19 mentions that it's the "first of two" Triton squadrons, but Rosi said that the service is still evaluating what sort of force structure is needed to support the five orbits.

While Big Red will be the first Triton squadron, Naval Air Systems Command has been conducting unmanned patrol operations in 5th Fleet since 2009. An early version of the Triton, a Block 10 Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk that has been customized for maritime missions, provides around 50 percent of the Navy's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage in the area, and a carrier won't transit the Strait of Hormuz without one above.

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