"The Battle Fleet Must Have Eyes"

By Rear Admiral William R. Smedberg IV, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Vice Admiral Donald L. Pilling, then Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Resources, Warfare Requirements and Assessments and presently Vice Chief of Naval Operations, told Congress last year that UAVs are a force multiplier. The need for such a force multiplier is already apparent within the surface combatant fleet. The first 28 Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided-missile destroyers are not equipped to employ a detachment of SH-60Bs and thus have a dire need for the capability that a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) UAV could provide.

Further, the Navy does not have enough helicopters to assign two aircraft to each deploying air-capable ship. UAVs could augment each helicopter detachment, a proposal recently advanced by naval component commanders in the Atlantic, Pacific, European, and Central commands. The solution would allow ships to employ these aircraft similar to the "Bird Dog" concept, a proposed means of cooperative engagement. UAVs could be used for initial reconnaissance, to include the more mundane and dangerous missions, while preserving manned aircraft for threat response and alerts.

The need for UAVs on surface combatants will increase. Since the end of the Cold War, surface combatants often have been employed on independent operations. In the future, the Navy will build on these distributed forces by tying them together under the network-centered warfare concept. This distributed offensive capability will be capable of bringing firepower to bear on targets anywhere in theater, and the network probably will require augmentation from tactical communications-relay UAVs.

A widely distributed fleet also means that surface combatants will rely more on UAVs for their own reconnaissance, surveillance, and targeting capabilities; national and theater reconnaissance assets may not always be available. In addition, radar in the littorals is likely to be hampered by terrain masking and clutter from sea and land returns. For high-altitude assets, target identification will be a significant problem in a highly congested urban littoral. In coastal areas, "UAVs will take the lead in operations," according to Captain Richard Wright, U.S. Navy.

UAVs will be integral to suppressing enemy coastal defenses, a potential demonstrated during Operation Desert Storm. Naval UAVs provided target selection, spotting and damage assessment for the 16-inch guns that destroyed Iraqi defenses along the Kuwaiti coast. In the future, UAVs must identify enemy systems well in advance so that they can be engaged well before they threaten the fleet.

Sea-based UAVs will find increasing use in conjunction with precision land attacks, a capability being built into almost every Aegis ship and the planned DDG21 land-attack destroyer. "There is indeed a very real requirement for an organic UAV capability aboard the surface combatants we are building that will have a greatly enhanced land attack capability," as Rear Admiral Murphy also stated.

The use of stand-off, precision munitions is predicated on timely and accurate target information. This makes UAVs especially important for naval surface fire support at long ranges. The Extended Range Guided Munition for the 5inch/62-caliber naval gun will have a range in excess of 70 nautical miles, the range of the Vertical Gun for Advanced Ships should exceed 100 nautical miles, and Naval Tactical Missile Systems will have a range of 165 nautical miles. UAVs are the logical choice for providing target information and battle damage assessment at these ranges. Using manned aircraft and ground reconnaissance instead would place them at great risk and defeat the purpose of stand-off weapons.

All the services have a requirement to find and destroy high-value mobile targets quickly—a task made to order for UAVs. The "Scud hunt" during Desert Storm is instructive. Some 600-700 aircraft, almost one-third of the Coalition's air forces, were dedicated to locating and destroying Scud missiles in western Iraq, a mission that proved fruitless in the end. A considerably smaller number of UAVs could have narrowed the search, identified a target, and then transmitted information to a weapons platform capable of rapid response and cooperative engagement. It could have provided target designation as well.

The success of sea-based theater missile defense will depend on remote sensors cueing Aegis ships to incoming missiles beyond the radar horizon. UAVs equipped with a forward looking infrared (FLIR) and television payload could do this, allowing Aegis fire-control radar to focus in the direction of the incoming missile and engage it as soon as possible. Without such advance cueing, ships will be placed at great risk.

The Marine Corps doctrine of Operational Maneuver from the Sea has a "compelling requirement" for UAVs, according to testimony before Congress by Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, U.S. Marine Corps, then commanding the Marine Corps Combat Development, in April 1997. A UAV equipped with an advanced mine-detection and line-scanner package could be used to detect minefields on landing beaches as well as other prepared defenses. This information would enable the landing forces to avoid these areas in its ship-to-objective maneuver.

Few systems offer greater versatility to surface ships than the UAV. In addition to improving operational awareness, UAVs may provide electronic countermeasures or may be modified for lethal applications. Realizing this potential, however, will require a highly capable UAV that can be more thoroughly integrated into the fleet, a process rather limited to date. Other than its earlier use on board battleships, the Pioneer UAV has been deployed on only the USS Austin (LPD-4), USS Denver (LPD-9), and the USS Shreveport (LPD-12). Nevertheless, these deployments have demonstrated the potential of UAVs in locations as diverse as Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, and Albania.

The problem with operating most UAVs on board ship was best described by noted maritime expert Eric Grove, when he characterized recovery as the crucial limiting factor. This was especially true in the early days of Pioneer deployment. Recoveries on board ship, as well as electromagnetic interference from other systems, were serious problems that caused a significant number of crashes. To resolve these problems, the Navy spent $50 million to bring Pioneer up to a minimum essential capability. Today, this fixed-wing UAV is recovered using a net rigged on the after part of the ship. Only recently was a Common Automatic Recovery System developed that should further reduce mishaps during recovery operations.

Such problems explain why fleet commanders-in-chief have opposed the deployment of other fixed-wing UAVs. When Hunter UAVs were scheduled to deploy on board naval vessels, for example, the Atlantic and Pacific Fleet Commanders in Chief, as well as the Commander, Naval Forces, Europe, objected on the grounds that they would adversely affect ships' flight operations. Launching Hunter from a big-deck Tarawa (LHA-1)-class or Wasp (LHD-1)-class amphibious assault ship entails moving helicopters and Harriers forward or to the hangar deck to clear the aft portion of the flight deck. Recoveries require rigging a barrier to protect other aircraft from the possibilities of a botched landing (shades of straight-deck carriers!) All this would take at least one hour. Moreover, the vehicles' short cycle times would dictate reconfiguring the deck frequently.

Nevertheless, naval commanders strongly desire a UAV. In a coordinated message (CINCLANTFLT 272140Z Feb 97), they stated: " . . . the fleets unanimously support the continued development and acquisition of a UAV system that is capable of automatic launch and recovery from all air-capable surface combatants. Lieutenant General Van Riper said it best: "We believe only the VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) capability will adequately satisfy our requirement for a UAV system capable of operating from all air-capable ships." Such a capability also would allow UAVs to operate from austere forward sites, a characteristic much sought after by foot soldiers.

The need for a naval VTOL vehicle is becoming widely recognized; indeed, an unfunded U.S. Navy requirement has existed since 1992. The German defense ministry plans to evaluate a VTOL UAV with the navies of Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom.

While a VTOL capability can resolve the recovery problem, this alone is not enough. Any naval UAV must be consistent with the objectives espoused by "From the Sea," and "Operational Maneuver from the Sea." These include:

  • Payload: 200- to 300-pounds
  • Range: 110 to 250 nautical miles
  • Time on station: 3 hours
  • Speed: 150 knots

Other important characteristics include a minimum of 2.5 kilowatts of electrical power for multiple, modular mission payloads, as well as operation on jet fuel for safety and logistic compatibility.

Today, the general consensus is that none of the fielded or programmed UAVs can perform the top 50% of the naval missions, including naval surface fire support, over-the-horizon targeting, battle damage assessment, situation awareness, communications and electronic warfare, and amphibious operations. Moreover, ideas that "model airplanes" can accomplish these missions have proved to be expensive mistakes. A VTOL UAV must be reliable and survivable because it will carry high-value payloads; the advanced mine detection and line scanner payload could cost nearly $1 million. Pioneers, which must fly at 800 feet to maintain sensor resolution and which cruise at 65 knots, are too vulnerable. In hostile territory, speed and quietness equate to survivability. Reliability means redundancy in critical flight control and navigational systems as well as a jet-fuel engine.

The Defense Department's competitive 50-hour land-based demonstration to evaluate the ability of existing VTOL UAVs to meet naval requirements was completed successfully during June at the Army's Yuma Proving Ground, Yuma, Arizona. The Bombardier CL-327 Guardian and Bell Helicopter Textron's Eagle Eye UAVs, two of the three platforms that participated in the Navy's VTOL UAV Demonstration at Yuma, presently are scheduled to participate in further testing. The Navy recently exercised contract options for UAV common automated recovery system integration and auto-land demonstration tasks with Bell and Bombardier; at-sea testing is scheduled in 1999.

A capable, reliable, and survivable UAV can enhance significantly the operational capabilities for all surface combatants and amphibious ships and prove equally valuable for Marine Corps and Army ground operations. Whatever the choice, the Navy's near-term UAV future is riding on the continuation and successful completion of this demonstration.

Rear Admiral Smedberg , a surface warfare officer, consulted on advanced naval technology and worked with Bell Helicopter Textron on naval applications for VTOL tilt-rotor aircraft, both manned and unmanned, before retiring to Florida in 1995. While on active duty, he commanded a carrier battle group, and was Director of Naval Warfare on the OpNav Staff.



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