UAS & Robotics

Intell director: Drones 'essential' to Navy's future

The Navy for some time has been placing greater importance and desire on unmanned autonomous systems, exemplified by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’s appointment of a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems and his assertion that the F-35 will be the last manned aircraft for the Navy. Vice Adm. Ted Branch, deputy chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance and Director of Naval Intelligence, drove home that point again Thursday while talking about the future of unmanned systems for the Navy.

Addressing a crowd at the AFCEA NOVA’s Navy IT Day in Vienna, Va., Thursday, Branch said Navy will be “increasingly reliant on unmanned systems,” and that it is “absolutely essential” to make progress in developing the technology. He said the Navy is trying very hard to “move the ball” in the direction of unmanned systems. 

Currently, the Navy’s unmanned portfolio is limited. In addition to several small UAVs and the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, it operates the MQ-4C Triton, the little cousin of the Air Force’s MQ-4 Global Hawk. Its mission, according to the Navy’s fiscal year 2016 budget is persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in maritime environments. Along with its manned counterpart, the P-8A, the Navy says it’s an important component to maritime domain awareness. The Triton will operate primarily in the Pacific.

The Navy must heavily rely on the Air Force’s unmanned capabilities for ISR purposes given its shortfall.

Branch addressed a major, if currently troubled, unmanned program, the UCLASS, or Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike. UCLASS could allow the Navy greater independence and more operational capability, although the program has been stalled over a debate about whether its primary purpose should be ISR or strike. It’s slated for operational readiness in 2022. Branch said that naval aviation and the Navy at large “absolutely needs UCLASS,” adding that the Navy “will have something unmanned on aircraft carriers.” 

UCLASS is building on developments achieved with the X-47B, a test aircraft that was the first to take off and land on a carrier, and recently became the first UAV to successfully refuel in flight.

During the Naval Future Force Science and Technology (S&T) Expo earlier this year, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of Naval Operations expressed the desire for the next generation strike aircraft to be interchangeable between manned and unmanned.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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