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NAVAIR Unmanned Aircraft Programs

“Operationalizing” America’s new security strategy



Given how many unmanned systems the U.S. Navy has in the field or in development this year, the Navy will issue its companion unmanned systems roadmap that details the Navy’s plans in these areas. This document will leverage the strong imperative Navy leadership has placed on fielding unmanned systems in such documents as the 2015, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS-21R) as well as the Chief of Naval Operations’ 2016 Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority (DMMS).


Stewardship of the Navy and Marine Corps Unmanned Aerial Systems

The Naval Air Systems Command has stewardship for a wide variety of Navy and Marine Corps UAS. The Naval Aviation Vision puts a punctuation mark on the “why” behind the Navy’s focus on UAS as a critical ingredient of its warfighting effectiveness:

The UAS family of systems provides the Navy and Marine Corps with a tiered, joint, interoperable UAS architecture for battle space awareness, maritime domain awareness, force protection, and force application required by supported commanders. UASs are tailored to support specific force levels, from strike groups to individual ships, aircraft, and ground units. Because of their increasing presence, importance, and integration on the maritime and littoral battlefields, the roadmaps for unmanned systems are now included alongside the manned aircraft platforms in the mission categories they serve.

The key to this vision statement is, “included alongside the manned aircraft platforms.” One of the key tenets – if not the key tenet – of the U.S. military’s strategy is human and machine collaboration. Indeed, the focus of the aforementioned Third Offset Strategy is manned-unmanned teaming. As we detail the attributes of the Navy and Marine Corps unmanned aerial systems, it is important to remember that these UAS are not designed to operate completely autonomously, but in close concert with their manned counterparts.

For example, the MQ-4C Triton UAS is designed to work in concert with the P-8A Poseidon. In the same manner, the MQ-8C Fire Scout is designed to deploy on the same ship (both versions of the littoral combat ship, now designated a fast frigate) with the MH-60R helicopter. This is important, for unlike other services, where unmanned systems are sometimes looked at as one-for-one replacements for manned systems, for the Navy, unmanned systems – especially UAS – are designed to be warfighters’ partners.


Rear Adms. Brian Corey and Mike Moran, NAVAIR Commander Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, and Cmdr. Sam Hanaki check out an MQ-8C Fire Scout during a tour of Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division facilities in Point Mugu, California. U.S. Navy photo by Kimberly Brown


The Naval Air System Command’s Family of Unmanned Systems

Mindful of the caveat that in publications such as The Naval Aviation Vision, UAS are listed with their manned counterparts in a particular mission area, for the purposes of what we are looking at, these UAVs are: the MQ-4C Triton, the MQ-8C Fire Scout, the X-47B UCAS, the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system (now transitioning to the CBARS system), and the Small Unit Remote Scouting System (SURSS) program (which includes the RQ-11B Raven, RQ-12A Wasp IV, and RQ-20A Puma, as well as other small UAS already in the field).


The MQ-4C Triton

The MQ-4C Triton provides combat information to operational and tactical users such as the carrier strike groups, expeditionary strike groups, and joint forces maritime component commanders. Often working in concert with its manned partner, P-8A Poseidon, in this important role, the MQ-4C Triton provides intelligence preparation of the environment by providing a more continuous source of information to maintain the common operational and tactical picture of the maritime battle space. Additionally, MQ-4C Triton-collected data posted to the Joint Information Environment (JIE) supports a variety of intelligence activities and nodes. In a secondary role, the MQ-4C Triton is also used alone or in conjunction with other assets to respond to theater-level operational or national strategic tasking.

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Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...