The Navy has been busy developing its arsenal of unmanned aircraft for operations at sea, along the littorals and on shore. This spring Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) will begin basic sensor testing for the Triton, a long-endurance Northrop Grumman UAV intended as a theater asset. Likewise, the MQ-8B Fire Scout is deploying on a littoral combat ship, and the unmanned helicopter's larger C model has completed sea tests aboard a destroyer. Finally, the tactical catapult-launched Blackjack is currently undergoing low-rate initial production.

Still, there's much to go before the true value of these unmanned aircraft will be understood. "I think we're just on the cusp of the learning curve [with regard to unmanned aircraft]," said CAPT Christopher Corgnati, Airborne ISR branch head within the Office of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance's Battlespace Awareness Division. "The next five years are going to be crucial for the Navy, when Triton hits the fleet and Fire Scout starts showing up in numbers."

MQ-4C Triton

The Navy's plan to develop the MQ-4C Triton, a maritime version of the Air Force's RQ-4 Global Hawk, is on track despite a recent cut in its fiscal 2015 budget, said Sean Burke, program manager for the Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft Systems program office.

With an operational range of 8,200 nautical miles and air endurance of 24-36 hours, the MQ-4C is expected to support the Navy's active numbered fleets from five land bases across the globe. Tritons stationed on these bases will form orbits, each comprising four platforms.

"So there will be a Fifth Fleet orbit," Burke said. "There will be a Seventh Fleet orbit and a Sixth Fleet orbit, for example."

Unlike their Army and Air Force counterparts, large Navy UAVs (Groups 4-5) tend to work in conjunction with manned aircraft. "We view the manned-unmanned integration almost like the fingers on your hand; they're complementary, integrated capabilities," said CAPT Robert Boyer, Battlespace Awareness Office division director for the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance.

In the case of the MQ-4C, the unmanned aircraft is designed to identify maritime targets of interest, cueing a P-8 Poseidon to go in and take a closer look, a coordinated effort that will support ship interdiction and anti-submarine warfare missions.

Another large, jet-propelled Navy asset is the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) system. In terms of capabilities, UCLASS has a much shorter range than the Triton, flying 600-1,200 nautical miles from the deck of a carrier. The platform's exact mission — whether long-range strike or primarily ISR — is still under review with the Office of Secretary of Defense, but Boyer said UCLASS could complement Triton.

"There's a lot of space out there to be covered," he said.

The Triton development program is based on three Integrated Functionality Capability (IFC) builds, which are, in turn, divided into smaller software upgrades. Last spring, NAVAIR completed IFC 1, which addressed envelope testing, proving the command-and-control performance of the Navy system at various weights, altitudes and airspeeds, Burke notes.

It's now in the middle of IFC 2, having already brought in wideband satellite communications, which were used to fly three development aircraft — two owned by NAVAIR and another one provided by Northrop Grumman. Next is testing sensor payloads.

The Triton will carry the AN/ZPY-3 multifunction active sensor radar, the AN/DAS-3 Electro-Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) sensor, the AN/ZLQ-1 Electronic Support Measures (ESM) system, and an Automatic Identification System (AIS). The question is how they will all function together. "Knitting together all these sensors is the work that's ahead of us now," Burke said.

NAVAIR will test fly basic sensor functionality in the spring with the rollout of IFC 2.2 software. If the Triton passes these tests and the operational assessment in early summer, the system will be up for a Milestone C decision, with senior Pentagon leaders deciding if the MQ-4C is ready for production.

As for IFC 3, which would bring the Triton's radar and geolocation capabilities up to operational level, it is expected to be ready in 2016. And the sense-and-avoid radar, which was initially supposed to be part of the baseline Triton program but ran into technical problems, will be left for 2020.

For now, the goal is to get Pentagon approval for two low-rate initial production (LRIP) lots, though the exact number of aircraft per lot has still to be determined. Likewise, there's no firm date for when the Navy will purchase all 68 Tritons it seeks.

Fire Scout B and C

The last few months have been fairly significant for the Group 4 MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter and its newer, larger C model. In November the B model deployed for the first time aboard a littoral combat ship, the Fort Worth ( as of Jan. 15 the Navy has renamed this class of ship frigates).

Until then, the Fire Scout B had only operated from guided-missile frigates (FFGs), but the Navy plans to phase out those ships by the end of this year. Likewise, it was the first time that the Fire Scout deployed as part of a manned-unmanned detachment with the MH-60R Seahawk.

"We're going to learn a lot in these first couple of deployments about TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] and how we want to operate this," said Corgnati.

More recently, in mid-December, a radar-carrying Northrop Grumman MQ-8B was tested aboard the Coast Guard cutter Bertholf in an effort to define that service's UAS requirements. And the C model completed sea tests aboard the destroyer Jason Dunham. "On the whole, it was a very successful test," CAPT Jeff Dodge, Fire Scout program manager at NAVAIR, said of the MQ-8C sea trials.

Entering into service with the Navy in 2009, the MQ-8B is built on the Schweizer 333 airframe and can carry a 300 lbs. payload for 5.5 hours. The C, by contrast, is based on the larger Bell 407 and can fly faster than the B while carrying 600 lbs. of sensor equipment for 11 hours.

X-47B UCAS First Flight at Pax River, July 2012 Northrum Grumman image
X-47B UCAS First Flight at Pax River, July 2012 Northrum Grumman image

X-47B UCAS First Flight at Pax River, July 2012 Northrum Grumman image

Photo Credit: Liz Wolter/ / Northop Grumman

Both have the same command-and-control capabilities, provide persistent situational awareness of the battlespace around the ship and will be armed with laser-guided rockets. Given this overlap, the B will eventually be replaced in favor of the C because, said Dodge, "we get so much more bang for the buck in terms of the airframe."

There are currently 23 operational MQ-8Bs and seven test aircraft with the Navy, and the service plans to purchase a total of 40 C models, including three test platforms. According to a Northrop Grumman spokesman, "Northrop Grumman is on contract for 19 MQ-8Cs and Congress has approved funding for an additional five MQ-8Cs in FY15."

NAVAIR is awaiting a decision regarding a purchasing schedule for the rest of the Cs. In the meantime, the Fire Scout B and C will operate on two different frigates (LCS) — the larger model needs an electrically powered mover to get it into the hanger.

In terms of ISR payloads, both the Fire Scout B and C use the FLIR Brite Star II EO/IR camera as their primary sensor. The B also has undergone testing with the Telephonics ZPY-4 Maritime Radar as part of a Rapid Deployment Capability that NAVAIR expects to ready by fall.

"The question is, is the ship going to be ready and the detachment trained up, and that has to do with ship schedules," Dodge said.

Other payloads being considered for the Fire Scout are the COBRA littoral mine detection system and beyond-line-of-sight communications. The C will also get a radar, Dodge said, but it may not be the Telephonics ZPY-4, given the different layout of the aircraft.

Dodge said C is still undergoing payload testing, and an operational test is scheduled later this year to support initial operational capacity at the end of 2016.

RQ-21A Blackjack

On the tactical UAS front, the Navy and Marines have been pressing ahead with the acquisition of the RQ-21A Blackjack, a Group 3 catapult-launched aircraft based on the Boeing Insitu Integrator. In mid-December NAVAIR awarded the contractor a $41 million contract for three LRIP Blackjack systems — each one comprising five fixed-wing aircraft, launcher and recovery cables, two ground commander stations and portable generators.

NAVAIR currently has two LRIP systems, said Col. Eldon Metzger, program manager for the Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office, which is responsible for the RQ-21A, smaller Group 1-2 systems, as well as ISR services.

One LRIP unit is a proof-of-concept system, while the other deployed to Afghanistan in May as a land-based early operational capability, returning this past September. "We exercised the system. Learned a lot from it. Never dropped a sortie," Metzger said.

In addition to LRIP systems 3-5, NAVAIR plans to purchase three Marine Corps and three Navy systems over the coming year, said Metzger. The ultimate goal is 32 systems for the Marines and 25 for the Navy, which will perform some of the missions currently conducted by the ScanEagle, a Group 2 UAV also built by Boeing Insitu, but operated as a contractor service. It's a model that the Navy is starting to get away from (but not completely) with the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan.

Also in December, NAVAIR testers finally completed the RQ-21A's ship-based initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) phase. NAVAIR had conducted the land-based IOT&E back in early 2014, but testing at sea proved trickier to organize.

Ship-based IOT&E was originally scheduled for July, aboard the amphibious transport dock New York, off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida. But the Navy had other plans for the San Antonio-class ship. "The New York had been dispatched … so we lost our ship," he said.

Testers then headed to the West Coast in the hopes of keeping to schedule, but the Navy was conducting the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, so IOT&E was pushed to a later date and performed aboard the amphibious transport dock Anchorage.

The standard Blackjack has a wingspan of 16 feet and a maximum takeoff weight of 135 lbs. Its operational range is a line-of-sight 50 nautical miles, and the Group 3 UAS can stay in the air for 16 hours. However, Boeing Insitu has been committing internal research and development dollars to developing a new bulked-up, extended-endurance Blackjack that will keep aloft for 24 hours.

"They increased the gross weight by 10 lbs., which is significant for a Group 3," Metzger said, adding that the extended endurance UAS will continue to operate at 50 nautical miles. "We have been in discussions with Insitu about a beyond-line-of-sight capability."

NAVAIR also has given thought to new payloads. Right now, the RQ-21A employs an EO/IR video camera and carries a communications relay package and an AIS receiver. Metzger said NAVAIR is also considering a signals intelligence payload or synthetic aperture radar in the future, but that might require a new engine to provide higher levels of power. In the meantime, the RQ-21A is progressing as planned.

"Now it's refining and honing those capabilities going forward," he said.