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NAVAIR Unmanned Aircraft Programs

“Operationalizing” America’s new security strategy



The release of the fiscal 2017 DOD budget altered the program, envisioning a Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) that would emerge with some elements of the UCLASS program, such as control systems, intact. The CBARS would maintain some strike capability but would be devoted to aerial refueling, enhancing the capabilities of the manned aircraft aboard Navy aircraft carriers. NAVAIR is expected to issue an RFP for the newly named MQ-25 Stingray program later this year.


The RQ-21A Blackjack is being procured for the STUAS role. U.S. Marine Corps photo


Small Unit Remote Scouting System (SURSS) Program

The Small Unit Remote Scouting System (SURSS) Program includes the RQ-11B Raven, the RQ-12A Wasp IV, and the RQ-20A Puma. These UAS are small, reusable, man-packable, and portable. They provide a means to see the battlespace beyond line-of-sight restrictions. The systems fulfill a need for organic, real-time reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA) and battle damage assessment (BDA) at the small unit (battalion and below) level. These systems support numerous unit types across the Marine Corps Air Ground Task Force and the Navy fleet.

  • The RQ-11B Raven

The RQ-11B Raven is a battery-powered, hand-launched small unmanned aircraft system (SUAS) that provides over-the-hill intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to Marine Corps units. The system, equipped with electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) cameras, transmits still images and full-motion video to a ground control station (GCS) and remote video terminal. The RQ-11B flies either under manual operator or via a preprogrammed route, and each system contains two air vehicles, one GCS, and one remote video terminal. Systems are being upgraded to include a digital data link and a more advanced gimbaled EO/IR.

  • The RQ-12A Wasp

Part of the Small Unit Remote Scouting System program of record, the RQ-12A Wasp micro unmanned aerial vehicle weighs less than 3 pounds and the system provides real-time reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition and battle damage assessment for Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) units. RQ-12A Wasp uses a digital data link (DDL) and dual electro-optical and infrared gimbaled cameras to transmit still images and full-motion video to the ground control station and remote video terminal.

  • The RQ-20A Puma

The RQ-20A Puma provides near real-time, land-based and maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations to Marine Corps units. It also provides small units the ability to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and IED-emplacement teams. Puma is a battery-powered, hand-launched SUAS. It can scan an area 360 degrees using a lightweight, electro-optical and infrared gimbal camera. It is employed at the company level to develop pattern of life, perimeter security, and persistent surveillance of targets and areas of interest. Each system consists of three air vehicles, one ground control station, and one remote video terminal.

Other Small UAS

  • RQ-7B Shadow

The RQ-7B Shadow is an expeditionary, multi-mission tactical UAS that provides dedicated reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition and designation, and communications relay to regimental-sized and larger Marine Corps units. Used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Shadow has flown well in excess of 20,000 combat hours in support of Marine Corps, joint, and allied operations.

  • Scan Eagle

The Scan Eagle is a 40-pound UAS used in both land- and ship-based operations. It has a cruising speed of 50 knots and a ceiling of 15,000 feet. It is equipped with a nose-mounted internal-stabilized camera turret that carries either a digital camera or infrared sensor.

In summary, these smaller UAS provide a short-duration, line-of-sight reconnaissance capability at the unit level. These lightweight, cost-effective UASs have become integral and essential tools for ground and maritime forces and have become ubiquitous throughout the operational environment, with demand from operational forces showing no sign of abating.

  • The RQ-21A Blackjack

The RQ-21A Blackjack, a larger twin-tailed follow-on to the Scan Eagle, was selected in 2010 for procurement by the Navy and Marine Corps to fill the requirement for a small tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS). The system provides persistent maritime and land-based tactical RSTA data collection and dissemination capabilities to the warfighter. The air vehicle’s open-architecture configuration can integrate new payloads quickly and can carry sensor payloads as heavy as 25 pounds.


Into the Future with NAVAIR Unmanned Aerial Systems

The Naval Air Systems Command’s family of unmanned aerial systems, the Navy and Marine Corps UAS, are ushering in a military revolution, the limits and boundaries of which we can only dimly perceive in 2016. From the top levels of Navy leadership the mandate is clear: Developing a UAS – vice a manned alternative – to support Navy, Marine Corps, joint, and coalition warfighters is the preferred solution as the Navy looks to the future.

While unmanned aerial systems are envisioned to soon usher in revolutionary warfighting capabilities, how big a game changer these UAS will be remains an open question. This is because NAVAIR is dedicated to getting these assets to the fleet and the field on an accelerated schedule. The reason for this strategy is simple: As fleet sailors and Marines begin to use these highly capable UAS, they will likely find ways to employ them operationally and tactically that developers have not yet envisioned. There are many reasons why the next decade will likely be remembered as the decade of Navy unmanned aerial systems.

This article was first published in NAVAIR: 50 Years of Naval Air Systems Command, 1966-2016 magazine.

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