A Navy X-47B takes off from an aircraft carrier.

Unmanned Systems

Navy again rebrands carrier-based drone program

From the outside, it would appear that the Navy is undergoing an identity crisis when it comes to unmanned aircraft. The service had been performing several tests using demonstrator aircraft as part of the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, which itself faced its own identity problems concerning whether the program would focus primarily on strike or surveillance. In the most recent presidential budget, funding for the UCLASS program was cut and the Navy said it was transitioning to a new focus, the Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System.

Now that UAS program has undergone another change. “CBARS is now gone, UCLASS is gone, we talk about the MQ-XX,” Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, the Navy’s director of Air Warfare, said last week, testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower, regarding the rebranded program to deliver the Navy’s first carrier-based unmanned aircraft. “The UCLASS program you’re familiar with was the subject of a strategic portfolio review by the Office of the Secretary of Defense conducted over the last year. That, coupled with a look at our ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities in the maritime, resulted in the restructure of the UCLASS program to what we currently call the MQ-XX,” Manazir said. 

The MQ-XX program, which uses the X-47B unmanned aircraft, will have two primary missions—aerial, in-flight refueling and ISR. “It will be able to take fuel and also give fuel. We primarily use that as an overhead recovery tanker organic to the aircraft carrier. Right now, that mission is conducted by F-18 E and F Super Hornets. And so if we offload that mission to an unmanned system then we can use those six tankers, those configured airplanes, we can reconfigure the tanks and use them for fighters,” Manazir said of the desire for an unmanned refueling capability.

Unmanned systems for nearly 25 years have increasingly provided forces with unprecedented and now persistent ISR in land and maritime environments. Manazir said that the long endurance of an unmanned platform will “be able to give that maritime domain awareness not only to the strike group commander but also to the fleet commander.” He added that the new dual mission set came about because the force can accommodate them in one aircraft coming off of an aircraft carrier more rapidly. 

The Marines also have “tremendous interest” in the MQ-XX program, Lt. Gen. Jon Davis, deputy commandant for Aviation, said, noting a desire to increase the scope – and aircraft size – of their UAS capabilities. Rather than looking to launch off of an aircraft carrier, “we would be going and looking for something to go off an amphibious ship…so a little bit different design,” he told the subcommittee.   

Davis explained that while the RQ-21 Blackjack – a maritime ISR unit used by the Navy and Marines, which is capable of 16-hour flights and a ceiling of over 19,000 feet – is a great capability for the Marines, it is a Group 3 UAS that’s limited in its payload capacity. The Corps is interested in a Group 4 UAS, such as the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. “We’re looking for a Group 4 and a Group 5 UAS that have long-dwell, long-duration [and] manned-unmanned teaming concepts,” Davis said. “We’ve got a requirements document study that’s going on at Quantico to go tell us exactly what they want us to go pursue but there’s several projects out there that give us a long-range, long-duration, multi-mission platform for UAS and we think UAS could deliver people, could deliver ordnance, could deliver fires, could deliver surveillance – all those things. So we’re looking for a wide aperture for what we can do with these platforms in the future.”

The Navy recently marked a milestone aboard the USS Carl Vinson with first installed UAS command center aboard an aircraft carrier. “This marks the start of a phased implementation of the MQ-XX system on an aircraft carrier,” Capt. Beau Duarte said in a release. “The lessons learned and ground-breaking work done here will go on to inform and influence future installations on other aircraft carriers.”

“We are carving out precious real estate on board the carrier, knowing that the carrier of the future will have manned and unmanned systems on it,” said Capt. Karl Thomas, Carl Vinson's commanding officer. “This suite is an incremental step necessary to extend performance, efficiency and enhance safety of aerial refueling and reconnaissance missions that are expending valuable flight hours on our strike-fighter aircraft, the F/A-18 Echoes and Foxtrots.”

“Having a UAV asset that provides persistent, potentially 24/7, surveillance coverage for the strike group is a game changer,” said Rear Adm. James Loeblein, commander of Carrier Strike Group 1. “Putting additional ISR capacity into the warfare commander's hands increases the flexibility and warfare capability of the entire strike group.”

Officials on Capitol Hill last week also discussed the Navy’s next-generation jammer, described by the witness’ collective written statement as “a new EW capability that will replace the 44-year old ALQ-99, currently the only Navy and Joint airborne Tactical Jamming System pod.” According to the statement, the ALQ-99 has a limited capability to counter advanced threats and is costly to maintain. The next-generation jammer will be implemented in three increments as described in the statement; Mid-Band (Increment 1), Low-Band (Increment 2), and High-Band (Increment 3).   

“The next generation jammer will be flown on the E/A 18-G Growler just like the current ALQ-99 podded system, which has been flying now for about 40 years,” Manazir said. “The reason we are purchasing the next-generation jammer, [whose] first increment will reach initial operational capability around 2021, is that the threat is getting more and more advanced. And that threat is in the electromagnetic spectrum. The next war is going to be fought in the electromagnetic spectrum.”

While not mentioning adversaries by name, Manazir was likely referring to Russia, which has resurfaced as the top strategic threat to the United States, according to many military officials such as Army Chief of Staff Gen Mark Milley. Russia possess significantly advanced EW capabilities that have caught the attention of many military planners.

Regarding capability, Manazir said the force has evolved from a system of barraging electromagnetic energy in order to saturate a system to a smart digital system that will be incorporated in the next-generation jammer. 

“I’d say in the next year … we’d have enough information to be able to go forward with a definable number as to whether 160 [Growlers] is enough,” Manazir said..  

“When the Marine Corps retires the EA-6B in 2019, the Growler will be the only DOD airborne electronic attack platform that will be flying,” he added, referencing the Marine’s EA-6B Prowler electronic attack aircraft, which has just been deployed to Turkey to support the anti-ISIS efforts.

About the Author

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

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