It’s a matter of historical record that the Royal Navy’s first aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, was fully operational for more than four years before the U.S. Navy’s first flattop, USS Langley (CV 1), was commissioned and landing its first experimental aircraft. Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy had more than 100 aircraft carriers in commission by the end of World War II, more than the rest of the world combined. The Navy may sometimes be slow to embrace new technologies, tactics, and ideas, but when they finally do, they usually do so in a big and quantitative way. So has it been with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which have not been in the U.S. fleet in significant numbers since the retirement of the QH-50D DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter). It’s been almost a dozen years since the first CIA and U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator drones began to rain AGM–114 Hellfire missiles down onto Taliban and al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan. Now it’s beginning to look like Fiscal Year 2013 is when the U.S. Navy is going to fully embrace UAVs, and get ready to send them out to the fleet.
In late 2012, the Navy began the process of permanently bringing UAVs into the fleet with the establishment of Unmanned Helicopter Reconnaissance Squadron One (HUQ-1 – “The Hydras”) at Naval Air Station (NAS) North Island, Calif. on Oct. 1, 2012. HUQ-1’s mission is to act as the Fleet Readiness Squadron (FRS – What in days-gone-by was known as a Replacement Air Group or “RAG”) to train and qualify pilots and operators for what the Navy calls the “Vertical Take-Off and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (VTUAV)” community. In addition, HUQ-1 will provide MQ-8B detachments (2-4 aircraft per detachment, with 28 airframes assigned) for deploying West Coast fleet units Finally, HUQ-1 will provide the same services and missions when the new MQ-8C Fire–X UAV comes online in 2014.
Previously, deployed detachments of Fire Scouts have primarily been based out of NAS Jacksonville, Fla., built around Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 42 (Now Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 42 (HMM-42) due to their transition from the SH-60B variant of the Seahawk to the SH-60R) and HSL-60. Over the past few years, a number of MQ-8B detachments assigned to Naval Station Mayport-based surface ships have made operational test and combat deployments aboard the frigates USS McInerney (FFG 8), Halyburton (FFG 40) and Simpson (FFG 56). These deployments have included combat Intelligence, Reconnaissance, and Surveillance (ISR) missions over Libya during Operation Unified Protector, counter narcotics patrols with SOUTHCOM and counter-piracy operational support in the Red Sea and off of Somalia.
The creation of HUQ-1, however, is a direct response to the Obama Administration’s “Pivot to the Pacific” initiative to shift America’s military forces to a primary focus on East Asian operations. So the stand-up of HUQ-1 is far more than just standing up a new helicopter squadron. In a time when the entire U.S. military is drawing down and demobilizing units, the fact that the U.S. Navy is creating new squadrons specifically for UAVs is a really important development. Another sign of the Navy’s growing support for operational UAV units has been the establishment of a new MQ-8 training facility at NAS Jacksonville, Fla., to provide trained personnel for East Coast Fire Scout appointments. It is entirely likely that the Navy will make this the basis of an East Coast squadron, similar to HUQ-1, some time in the next several years. However, VTUAV UAVs are not the only unmanned aircraft that will be joining the fleet in the next decade.
The Maritime Patrol (VP) community has been reborn since 9/11, finding a vast array of roles and missions in the fight against terrorism across the globe. In response, the Navy is providing the VP community with a pair of new, state-of-the-art airframes. Entering service by the end of this decade will be the P-8A Poseidon patrol plane (based on the Boeing 737 airframe) and the MQ-4C Triton Maritime Surveillance UAV (previously known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, or BAMS, program. As part of this VP community build up, the U.S. Navy is indicating that it will likely form two dedicated UAV squadrons at NAS Whidbey Island, Wash. and NAS Jacksonville to train, qualify, and form detachments for forward deployment of the MQ-4C Triton. These units would perform many of the same tasks as HUQ-1, and are likely to represent the way the Navy is likely to bring new UAV types into service in the coming years.
What is described above is just the tip of the iceberg of what the U.S. Navy is doing to bring UAV technology in the fleet. UAVs are just like any other naval aircraft, requiring special features, materials, and structures suited to the arduous maritime environment in which the fleet works in. In future articles, we will show some of the new U.S. Navy UAVs in greater detail, and provide some sense of the roles and missions they will fulfill.