The scene on the deck of the USS George Bush looked quite normal. The date was 11 July 2013. Crews were in their positions awaiting the arrival of the next aircraft in the circuit to land. From the media coverage the whine of the engine on finals could be heard. Suddenly there was a brief glimpse of the aircraft shooting past the television cameras as it successfully picked up the second wire laid across the deck. The television camera then panned away along the deck to show the aircraft that had just landed.
This was not the usual arrival on the deck of a United States aircraft carrier. With little fuss or bother the X-47B prototype from the next generation of fighter jet taxied away off the landing area. It had cost $1.8 billion and eight years of development work to get to this point. Yet what was amazing about the whole scene was the apparent normality of the event. It was as if it had happened hundreds of times before.
In reality that was not the case. It was the first time an unmanned aircraft had ever completed that feat. The world of UMA had just moved into an entirely new era. The world of armed, unmanned fighter jets operating from aircraft carriers had just arrived. Airmen watching the event may have wondered how long it would be before they no longer experienced the rush of the catapult. As if to drive home the point about the impending end of manned platforms, the UMA repeated the same feat minutes later as it landed for a second time on the deck of the aircraft carrier. It was only on the third approach that the UMA developed a fault that required the landing to be aborted. The UMA then flew away to land safely at a nearby shore-based facility.
For the next generation of naval airmen the images of Top Gun would no longer capture the vivid nature of air-to-air combat. The landing of the X-47B presaged a new future in naval aviation, one that perhaps did not have quite the same level of excitement that their forefathers had experienced. From this point on the United States navy had entered the era of UMA. It was a significant moment. UMA were starting to venture beyond the land environment into the maritime domain.
UMA are now not just being applied in the land environment. In December 2013 a Los Angeles-class attack submarine launched a UMA from one of its vertical missile tubes. The launch from the USS Providence, which was the first Los Angeles-class submarine to be equipped with vertical launch tubes for anti-shipping missiles, was a success. The UMA was encapsulated in a Sea Robin launch vehicle which separated as the package surfaced. The UMA then deployed its wings for flight and conducted a two-hour surveillance mission broadcasting real-time video back to the submarine which remained submerged for the exercise. The launch was the result of a six-year development activity led by the Naval Research Laboratory.
The test vehicle used on the exercise has the potential to fly for up to six hours helping develop the recognized land, littoral or maritime picture in support of reconnaissance or combat operations. It has an obvious role supporting the activities of Special Forces. Such a capability does, however, have its limitations as the launch or presence of a UMA might reveal that the launch platform has to be nearby and may result in the submarine’s position being compromised.
In the marine environment UMA are also involved in monitoring criminal behaviour. One variant that started its life in the land environment is the ScanEagle. In 2012 it completed 600,000 combat hours. Of that total, 23,000 hours were spent operating in the maritime environment on around 3,000 sorties. It is not the only UMA that has been adapted for use in the marine environment. The MQ-8B Fire Scout is a helicopter-based UMA that surpassed 5,000 flying hours in April 2012.
In one of its first major deployments at sea the MQ-8B was based on board the USS Halyburton and the USS Simpson. Plans have been announced to arm the Fire Scout with a laser-guided 70mm rocket. The next generation of the system moves away from the smaller platform using a modified Bell Model 407 helicopter. The first flight test model of this was delivered to the Naval Air Station at Point Mugu in California on 8 July 2013 and was slated to make its first operational flight in the autumn of 2013. In service this will offer increased payload capabilities (40 per cent), range (30 per cent) and endurance (100 per cent). The MQ-8C retains 85 per cent of the flight control software used by the MQ-8B.
The initial contract with the United States navy sees fourteen of the MQ-8C being supplied alongside the equipment for seven ground stations. On board the new UMA a sensor system called the Multi-Mode Sensor Seeker (MMSS) provides the ability to look for targets in the maritime environment, such as small pirate skiffs or mother vessels such as dhows. The programme is also taking the first steps towards increasing the degree of processing on board the UMA, reducing the need for streaming video. A database on the UMA coupled with automatic target recognition software will enable some pre-screening of the data. The system, it is claimed, will be able to look for specific ships.
This sudden interest in the application of UMA to the maritime domain had one important driver. Off the coast of Somalia as the problems with piracy grew rapidly the international community turned to UMA to provide the kind of persistent response with which they had excelled in Iraq and Afghanistan. What was needed was to patrol large areas of the Indian Ocean looking for indications of the presence of PAGs (Pirate Action Groups) and also to provide ISTAR support over specific events. The imagery derived from a UMA operating over the small dinghy in which Captain Richard Phillips was held hostage for several days by armed pirates came from one that had been deployed in support of the operation. It provided vital situational information that enabled the rescue of Captain Phillips to be successfully accomplished. The platform in question was the ScanEagle system. This had originally been designed to help fishermen locate and track schools of tuna.
Since its initial development the ScanEagle UMA has been trialled by the Canadian navy and the Royal Navy. Aboard HMCS Charlottetown in the Mediterranean Sea the UMA played an important role in helping gain situational awareness data as part of Operation ACTIVE ENDEAVOUR, the mission to bring security to the people of Benghazi in Libya. The Royal Navy has also conducted trials of the same UMA on board HMS Sutherland and deployed the same system aboard a Royal Fleet Auxiliary during exercises in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. In June 2013 the Royal Navy announced a major contract with the manufacturers of ScanEagle to deploy the system at sea.
The Royal Navy categorizes this UMA as a Maritime Unmanned Air System (MUAS). The ScanEagle system can travel at speeds of up to 80 knots (92 miles per hour, 150 kilometres per hour) and can communicate with its host platform up to a range of 100 kilometres (62 miles). One test variant of the platform has achieved a record of remaining airborne for twenty-two hours and eight minutes. When it returns on board it is captured by a ‘Skyhook’ retrieval system.
The ScanEagle system can be configured with a number of different sensor systems to suit specific missions. It is also envisaged that it might be possible to extend the range over which such UMA operate by providing a control console in indigenous aviation assets, such as Merlin helicopters, that are deployed on board destroyers and frigates. They could also receive the direct read-out from the UMA sensor package.
The problems of monitoring large areas of the Indian Ocean dwarf the uses of UMA in land-based theatres. This is a different level of surveillance altogether. The sensor suite aboard the UMA over the ocean was not optimized for a maritime environment. Radar reflections behave differently over a developed sea to how they do over land. This requires several of the existing sensor suites deployed on UMA to be re-optimized for the maritime environment.
Basing UMA in the Seychelles was an obvious solution. Their geographic location was ideal for flying surveillance missions over those areas of the Indian Ocean where PAGs were known to be active. This deployment lacked the intensity of media coverage associated with armed UMA in places like Pakistan, the Yemen and Somalia.
The Predators operating out of the Seychelles provided another point of pressure against the pirates, restricting their operations. However, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be writing any features suggesting that the deployment of UMA against the pirates had anything but a marginal impact on their operations.
What did change the entire dynamic in the region was the introduction of armed guards on merchant vessels and the deployment of secure rooms into which the crew could retire when they came under attack. As long as the crew could hold out for up to a day, naval vessels could reach the hijacked merchant vessel and effect a rescue. In the limit armed UMA could be used to halt a pirate attack but what is more likely is that the lightly-armed tactical UMA could be used to threaten a PAG if they continue an attack. The vision of a pirate surrendering to an armed drone may not exist in the imagination for much longer.
The role performed by UMA over the Indian Ocean has reaffirmed the role they can play in maritime security operations. Australia is a country that has a huge coastline to protect and has problems with illegal immigration. Japan has issues with China over the ownership of the Diaoyu Islands. Mexico has a drug-smuggling problem. All are actively in the process of acquiring UMA capabilities to patrol vast areas of the ocean.
The BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) system is one new development that will increasingly allow UMA to play a role in policing international maritime boundaries. African nations, such as Nigeria, will no doubt soon be following suit. For European countries the problems of criminal groups smuggling economic migrants, potential terrorists and narcotics from the shores of North Africa to the southern shores of Europe is a growing concern.
In terms of naval strike capability the United States navy has already started the UCLASS programme, awarding a number of the main US defence suppliers initial contracts to develop designs for the programme. Using a UMA to project power into the littoral or over the horizon from an aircraft carrier is not a great leap of faith, although the amount of ordnance that can be carried is limited compared to the F-18 Hornet.
For other missions, such as anti-submarine warfare, the UMA will have to be armed with different weapon systems. With the MQ-9 Reaper already carrying 500lb bombs as part of its payload, the weight of a contemporary torpedo such as the Stingray (267 kilos, 500lb) suggests that arming a UMA for an anti-submarine strike mission is not out of the question.
The size of the Stingray torpedo would present a design challenge for the teams involved in developing an ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) capability but it is unlikely the issues that arise would be insurmountable. Replacing the F-18 Hornet in the air-to-air combat role, however, is likely to be a significantly greater challenge. The anti-ship strike role is also not an ideal environment for Hellfire, the small warhead being more appropriate in a COIN context. Against a warship it lacks the capability of missiles like the Exocet with its 165 kilos (364lb), although the speeds of the two missiles are not at great variance. The Hellfire travels at 425 metres per second and the Exocet at 315 metres per second. From a kinetic energy viewpoint, which scales at the square of the speed, both have a significant capability to punch a hole in a ship.
In August 2013 it emerged that plans were being developed to equip UMA with their own air-to-air weapons for defensive purposes. The aim is to equip the MQ-9 Predator and presumably the Reaper system with the AIM-9X Sidewinder, AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) and the High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM). Alongside the missiles the MQ-9 would also be equipped with an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar derived from those used on the most advanced fighter jets in the United States Air Force inventory.
The primary aim of the initial studies that are examining the feasibility of this configuration is to add a counter-UMA mission to the work already undertaken by the aircraft. The addition of HARM would also give the UMA an ability to conduct the SEAD mission. It is also possible to see in the future the UMA acting as the scout or pathfinder for incoming packages of strike aircraft relaying targeting coordinates directly into the cockpit of aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor. This would provide the advantage that the F-22 would be able to remain stealthy and not illuminate the target using its own on-board radar system and risk being compromised.
China is also showing interest in the development of maritime UMA. Images emerging on the internet showed a Chinese frigate – the Jiangkai II (Type 054A) vessel Zhoushan – launching a rotary-wing UMA. Its design resembles that of the Camcopter S-100 developed in Austria. The company manufacturing the S-100 denies selling the S-100 to China. It is possible that the close resemblance of the two is entirely coincidental or it may be another example of how the Chinese have taken steps to accelerate their own development programmes using espionage to obtain designs and drawings from which they have been able to quickly engineer their own models.
The S-100 is capable of carrying a payload of up to 50 kilos (110lb) and can remain airborne for up to seven hours. In April 2012 it became the first UAV to fly from an Italian warship: the Artiglieri (Soldati)-class frigate ITS Bersagliere. During the flight tests the S-100 operated in sea states varying between 3 and 4 and at wind speeds up to 25 knots. In contrast to the MQ-8C, the company manufacturing the system in Austria (Schiebel) have made it clear they do not intend to arm the S-100. Its role is purely as an ISTAR asset, although it can also carry loudspeakers, spotlights and rope/net-dropping containers to try to have an effect upon a target, such as a pirate skiff.