Naval Air: The Recon Revolution Goes To Sea

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November 14, 2016: In late October 2016 the U.S. Navy declared its first MQ-4C “Triton” UAV squadron, VUP (Unmanned Patrol Squadron) 19 operational. VUP 19 began forming at the end of 2013 on the east coast of the United States, where it will handle MQ-4C operations over the Atlantic. A second squadron is being formed on the west coast to cover the Pacific. Four or five VUP squadrons are planned and these will complement and replace the squadrons that have been using manned patrol aircraft, mainly the P-3C “Orion”.

The navy plans to buy 68 Tritons and 117 P-8As “Poseidon’s” manned jet aircraft to replace 250 prop driven P-3Cs. This replacement program is supposed to be complete in about a decade. The new surveillance aircraft provide more information over a wider area and do it more quickly. The MQ-4C is expected to enter regular service in 2017 when the first production model is delivered. Each VUP will have at least 12 MQ-4Cs and some will be stationed overseas.

Since 2008 the navy only had six RQ-4B Global Hawk UAVs available to develop modifications and upgrades needed to turn the RQ-4 into a maritime patrol aircraft. These modified RQ-4Bs have flown over 13,000 hours for the navy since the first one arrived in 2008. In early 2013 the first prototype model of the MQ-4C took off and began its flight testing. The MQ-4C Triton was different in that it had additional protection against salt damage and a set of sensors optimized for monitoring water rather than land. The flight control software was also tweaked to adapt the UAV so that was better able to spend most of its time navigating across the high seas.

Even before the RQ-4 adaptation process was complete one of the six navy RQ-4Bs was put in service on an experimental basis. In 2009, the first year of testing consisted of 60 flights and over 1,000 hours in the air by one of the navy RQ-4Bs. The flights were over land and sea areas, even though the UAV sensors are designed mainly to perform maritime reconnaissance. In 2012 a navy RQ-4B began operating with a carrier task force at sea. Circling above the task force at 22,500 meters (70,000 feet), the UAV monitored sea traffic off the Iranian coast and the Straits of Hormuz. Anything suspicious was checked out by carrier, land based aircraft, or nearby warships. The RQ-4B could a 24 hour sortie every three days. The brief tests with the fleet were a success and the first production MQ-4C was delivered in late 2012.

The Navy is buying the MQ-4C for over $60 million each. The MQ-4C has a wingspan of 42.2 meters (131 feet) and is 15.5 meters (48 feet) long. Range is over 22,000 kilometers and cruising speed is 650 kilometers an hour. The MQ-4C is based on the RQ-4B which entered service in 2006. At 13 tons the Global Hawk is the size of a commuter airliner (like the Embraer ERJ 145) but costs nearly twice as much. Global Hawk can be equipped with much more powerful and expensive sensors, which more than double the cost of the aircraft. These "spy satellite quality" sensors (especially AESA radar) are usually worth the expense because they enable the UAV, flying at over 20,000 meters (62,000 feet), to get a sharp picture of all the territory it can see from that altitude. The B version is a lot more reliable. Early A models tended to fail and crash at the rate of once every thousand flight hours.

The MQ-4C is seen as the ultimate replacement for all manned maritime patrol aircraft, at least once it is equipped with more anti-submarine sensors and weapons. The P-8A will probably be the last manned naval search aircraft. Some countries are using satellite communications to put the sensor operators who staff manned patrol aircraft on the ground. Some nations propose sending aircraft like the P-3 or P-8 aloft with just their flight crews, not all the system operators and having all the other gear operated from the ground. This enables the aircraft to stay in the air longer and carry more equipment.

 


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