The Fire Scout's mission over Afghanistan will continue while other U.S. forces withdraw, the Navy's top unmanned-flight officer said. (MC2 Alan Gragg / Navy)
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The RQ-21A, a 125-pound unmanned aircraft with an interchangeable payload, made its first at-sea flight Feb. 10 from the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde. (MC3 Sabrina Fine / Navy)
The Navy's growing collection of unmanned aircraft is making headway with new platforms and moving closer to real-world operations, the fleet's top UAV officer said at a recent symposium — but the news isn't all good.
From "reliability issues" with a UAV providing reconnaissance over Afghanistan to budget concerns surrounding the next step in unmanned carrier flight, Rear Adm. Mathias Winter, the program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, gave a frank assessment of the Navy's unmanned systems in a Feb. 13 speech at an Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International symposium in McLean, Va. Some highlights:
Mixed review for Fire Scout
The MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter is a great asset, Winter said — when it works.
The unmanned helicopter continues to provided frigates and ground forces in Afghanistan with airborne reconnaissance, but it's closer to giving them an attack capability as well. It will be loaded with six laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System missiles.
Naval Air Systems command said the weapon system's gas ingestion testing and safe separation tests should be complete by the end of March at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., and rocket firings are scheduled for this summer at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif.
Also, while the U.S. is accelerating its handover of combat operations to local forces in Afghanistan, the Fire Scout will not pull out, Winter said.
The Navy grounded its Fire Scout fleet April 10 after two Class A mishaps — incidents causing at least $2 million in damage — in one week. They were back in the air before month's end. One Fire Scout was intentionally ditched amid attempts to land it onboard the frigate Simpson failed because of problems with the landing system, while another was lost in Afghanistan because of issues with its navigation system.
Another Fire Scout crashed in December after a surveillance mission off Africa's northern coast where it encountered icy conditions.
Winter said the UAV "is not the nirvana system that may be in the papers. We've got reliability issues and maintenance issues we've got to overcome."
X-47B makes history
The appearance of the X-47B — the Navy's unmanned carrier demonstrator — on the deck of the Harry S. Truman in November was "history-making," Winter said, discussing the progress the program has made in recent months.
There have been "huge strides" in turning the dangerous world of a carrier flight deck into computer code the unmanned system can use to react to aircraft and personnel movements, commands and other variables, enabling it to fit seamlessly into flight operations. With deck-handling, communication, electronic magnetic interference, network and maneuvering tests held in December on Truman, the program will head to the carrier George H.W. Bush in April or May, depending on ship schedules, Winter said.
Original plans called for a catapult shot from Truman in November, but bad weather scuttled that plan. A series of shots and traps from Bush is planned for this spring, Navy and industry officials said. Meanwhile, the follow-on program — Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS — is in the paperwork phase. The biggest priority will be cost, Winter said.
The Defense Department plans to spell out UCLASS' capabilities and limitations — including whether it can operate in contested airspace — this year. The program's final cost also hasn't been determined, Winter said; $122.5 million is budgeted for 2013.
One feature that will help the UAV's bottom line: It'll be able to use munitions already aboard the carrier, instead of requiring its own cache.
Triton to fly soon
The Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft is already providing half of the Navy's airborne patrol in 5th Fleet and is always keeping watch when a carrier transits the Strait of Hormuz. But soon it will also head to the Mediterranean for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance coverage, Winter said, though he didn't give a start date.
Meanwhile, the next wave in unmanned patrol aircraft, the MQ-4C Triton, is expected to make its first flight in April out of Palmdale, Calif. Operational tests are in track for full production in fiscal 2014, Winter said.
Like BAMS, Triton won't be armed. It will, however, assist the P-8 Poseidon, a manned patrol plane armed with torpedoes, cruise missiles, bombs and mines, in targeting and engaging enemies, Winter said.
Small UAV debuts
After making its first flight at sea Feb. 10 from the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde, the RQ-21A — also known as the Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System — is on track to enter operations this year, Winter said.
The 125-pound, 7-foot-wide STUAS comes with interchangeable payloads and could be loaded with different camera systems, laser range-finders or infrared markers, for example. It's designed for surveillance flights, communication relays and target acquisitions and will be used by both the Navy and Marine Corps. Like its predecessor, the ScanEagle, it's launched with a catapult and is hooked by a snare for a landing.
Intel standards needed
All of these systems are first and foremost spy planes designed to collect reams of intelligence for the war fighter. With this steady stream of data coming from several sources, the Navy is working on a common system to collect, analyze and share the information with operators. Officials are looking at ways to standardize data and interfaces so no matter the UAV, the intel can be handled the same way, Winter said.
"Unmanned systems need to be interoperable and as common as possible," he said.
The Navy has its own standards for making platforms work interchangeably — standards that could be adopted by unmanned systems from other services.
An interservice standard would be a "nirvana state," Winter said, but right now it's a "coalition of the willing."