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Pigeon Holes or Paradigm Shift: How the Navy Can Get the Most of its Unmanned Vehicles

Pigeon Holes or Paradigm Shift: How the Navy Can Get the Most of its Unmanned Vehicles

Proceedings, July 2012
The U.S. Navy must combine innovation with tested ideas to make the most of its unmanned aerial vehicles.

110930-N-JQ696-401The process of assimilating a new technology is a complex one for any organization. Besides facing the resistance of those who view it as a threat, the technology’s full potential often remains unrealized because of a failure of imagination. Instead it is forced, at least initially, into existing functions and slotted into established intellectual “pigeonholes.” Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been subjected to this sort of thinking. The U.S. Navy should consider them as more than mere unmanned versions of existing aircraft and take full advantage of this new tool.

In the original version of the film Star Wars , Luke Skywalker piloted an X-wing fighter with his trusty droid R2-D2 in the back. Single-seat aviators of the 1970s noted with some glee the allegorical reference to an automated naval flight officer. It appeared that the function of piloting was inherently human; system management was something a robot could handle. However, even at their current stage of development, the flight of unmanned aircraft is considerably more automated than, say, radio-controlled model airplanes, which indeed must be “flown.” UAVs such as the Northrop-Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk are capable of autonomous takeoff, navigation, and landing. It is the pilot function that has been automated; the naval flight officer function still requires a human to make decisions.

This is the leading edge of a “paradigm shift”: pilotless aircraft operated by pilotless squadrons or perhaps by no squadrons at all. The shift may go further, possibly obviating the need for any kind of winged specialist. After all, the Navy has been operating a large fleet of highly lethal unmanned aircraft since the 1950s, controlled almost exclusively by surface warfare officers. These aircraft are called missiles.

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One of the U.S. Navy’s largest and most expensive unmanned aerial vehicles crashed in the Chesapeake Bay under unknown circumstances early Monday afternoon. The downed $180 million RQ-4A Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstrator (BAMS-D) is one of five modified U.S. Air Force Global Hawk UAVs the Navy is testing ahead of an estimated $40 billion program that the Navy says will greatly improve its maritime domain awareness. Under Secretary of the Navy Bob Work said the inclusion of BAMS into the fleet would mitigate the need for a large surface fleet for maritime domain awareness.”Everyone focuses on whether there are going to be 313 ships or 310,” he said on Jan. 12 in Jane’s Defence Weekly. “I say, who cares? I’ve got BAMS. [Its surveillance coverage] is a lot bigger than a 600-ship navy.”


US Navy Photo

Primary Function: Specifically tailored for maritime and littoral intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The BAMS-D system currently consists of two Block 10 RQ-4A air vehicles, one Mission Control Element (MCE), two Launch and Recovery Elements (LRE) plus one Tactical Auxiliary Ground Station (TAGS).
Contractor: Northrop Grumman
Date Deployed: January 2009
Propulsion: 1 Rolls-Royce AE3007H turbofan
Endurance: 31 hours (with reserves)
Length: 44.0 feet (13.4 meters)
Wingspan: 116 feet (35.4 meters)
Height: 15.2 feet (4.6 meters)
Weight: Max design gross take-off: 25,600 pounds (11,612 kilograms)
Airspeed: 340knots (approximately 391 mph)
Ceiling: 60,000 feet (18,288 meters)
Range: 10,500nautical miles (19,446 kilometers)
Crew: 4 per ground station (2 pilots and 2 sensor operators)
Sensors: Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, Electronic Support Measures (ESM) and the following side-looking sensors: Electro-Optical/Infrared(EO/IR) camera, maritime-enabled Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR)

Information from U.S. Naval Air Systems Command