U.S. Navy launches new squadron of manned, unmanned helicopters

CORONADO, California Thu May 2, 2013 8:25pm EDT

1 of 7. Members of first U.S. Navy helicopter squadron to include manned and unmanned aircraft pose with one of their aircraft after a ceremony at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, California May 2, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

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CORONADO, California (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy introduced its first squadron that combines combat helicopters with unmanned aerial vehicles at an air base near San Diego on Thursday, calling the approach the future of warfare.

The squadron of about 140 sailors, called the Magicians, will work off coastal combat ships that are smaller and faster than destroyers and aircraft carriers.

"We've been using multimillion dollar destroyers to chase Somali pirates," Admiral David Buss said. "This approach is designed for near-shore environment where our current experience shows us we're most likely to encounter threats."

The new approach combines MH-60 Romeo helicopters the Navy currently uses with the MQ-8 Fire Scout, a Northrop Grumman-built drone that looks and launches like a helicopter.

Where the helicopters are designed and built for antisubmarine and surface warfare, as well as search and rescue, the Fire Scout will be equipped and used for surveillance, target acquisition and relaying information to its controllers, at least for now.

The unmanned aircraft is controlled by two "pilots" on the ground or on a ship up to 110 miles away. It can stay in the air for at least eight hours, compared to the helicopter's maximum air time of 3.3 hours.

The Navy has been testing the Fire Scout since 2007 and deploying it since 2009, using it for counter-narcotics operations and in Afghanistan. In 2012, two of the drones crashed in separate incidents, and the Navy briefly grounded its Fire Scout fleet. Another was shot down over Libya in 2012.

The strengths of the Fire Scout lie in how long it can monitor situations, Buss told a news conference.

"Helicopters can't stay airborne as long as the Fire Scout," he said. "With the Fire Scout's endurance of up to eight hours, the helicopter crew can return refuel, rearm and re-man while the Fire Scout maintains contact."

Buss acknowledged that the Navy doesn't have a playbook for how to mix manned and unmanned flying warfare.

"The ink has not dried on any set of criteria yet," he said. "As with any new systems and any new technology, we work through the bugs from early on."

Northrop Grumman is looking forward to seeing how the Navy actually uses the Fire Scout and already has an upgraded version in the pipeline, according to Jim Zortman, sector vice president of global logistics and operational support.

"We put it in the hands of these smart, young sailors and they figure out ways to operate it that we never thought of," Zortman said. "They take some little thing we barely noticed and do something amazing with it while something we paid a lot of attention to, they'll barely notice or use at all."

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)

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Comments (4)
usagadfly wrote:
Hurrah for the Navy!

Nice to see our tax money being intelligently used for a change. This sort of flexible creativity and openness to new methods and technologies ought to be a model for all of the military. The world is changing, and so must we. Well done!

May 03, 2013 3:01pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
MikeBarnett wrote:
The US is behind on this. China has integrated land, sea, and air drones into the TO&E of its armed forces and uses them in training exercises. China has developed the super computer systems and programs to control communications for human and robotic forces in coordinated, comprehensive, and integrated land, sea, and air training exercises. The systems and programs allow processing and entry of field responses that alter the situation and help develop strategies and tactics that cope with rapidly evolving actions. The systems and programs have not yet been tested in war because China has not fought a war since 1979. However, China has studied US wars from the 1991 Gulf War to the present carefully, and it has planned, made and tested equipment, and integrated these new weapons and systems into its TO&E and its field exercises.

The US must do the same instead of just throwing money at every new gadget. Unfortunately for the US, training exercise budgets have been cut in favor of acquiring new gadgets, so the US will not know how to use its new gadgets effectively until a year or two into the next war. Even worse, many new gadgets won’t work well for US forces, but congressmen from the defense maker’s home states will keep ineffective gadgets in the US defense budget, reducing resources for US forces.

May 03, 2013 4:06pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Mike_s1 wrote:
Considering that the article doesn’t have an itemized price list, it’s hard to determine if this is an intelligent use of tax payer money. The Pentagon has never really worried about frugality. After all, the lifecycle cost of a single F-35 runs over $618 million (yes, over half a BILLION dollars for ONE plane), something that may get replaced by a drone before it ever gets old enough to retire.

May 03, 2013 4:13pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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