March 11, 2004
In a first for the US Navy, on 19 December 2003, a P-3C, while in flight, took control of a Fire Scout Vertical UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) from its launch to its recovery. The P-3 controlled the UAV's sensor payload while airborne, as well as flight and landing. The P-3 linked to the Fire Scout with its Tactical Control System (TCS) and controlled the UAV and its sensors. The new communications systems enhance the P-3's capability to perform over the horizon targeting while increasing both the Fire Scout's and P-3's survivability. The test proved the Navy's increasing capability to find and attack targets more quickly, while improving situational awareness and post-strike battle damage assessment. The UAV can also assist in acting as a communication relay for warships. During the demonstration the P-3 sent the Fire Scout toward a US Coast Guard ship acting as the target. The UAV broadcast video to the P-3C, which then relayed the video, and other sensor data, to a ground station, showing how data could be shared in a combat network ("network centric.") The test also showed how the use of a UAV would help keep the manned P-3 out of danger. The Navy RQ-8A Fire Scout has a service ceiling of 20,000 feet and range of 270 kilometers of its ground control station, and considerably farther when being controlled from the air.
This test was so successful in proving potential risk reduction for the manned patrol aircraft, that a subsequent demonstration scheduled for February had been cancelled. Level V control, which was tested here, is the highest level of control of a UAV. Level I is the capability to receive and display imagery or data without direct interaction with the air vehicle providing the imagery; Level II is the ability of the ground or air controller to receive imagery directly from the air vehicle without it being processed at another location; Level III is the controllers ability to control the air vehicle's onboard sensor payload but not the flight of the air vehicle; Level IV adds flight control; and Level V entails full control of the UAV, including launch and recovery.
Tactical/battle control of a UAV from a maritime patrol aircraft is the essence of the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Program (BAMS). The P-3 AIP/ TCS demo shows one potential concept of how MMA platforms (manned air vehicle) can be interoperable with a BAMS UAV. The objective is to have multiple type UAV and payload control providing connection to various services' C4I systems.
This test followed the 100th successful test of the RQ-8A on 17 December the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brother's first successful airplane flight. This milestone flight also took place at Webster Field, where Fire Scout continued its test series involving operations aboard USS Denver (LPD-9). This series has involved flights carrying a Synthetic Aperture Radar with Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI), the Navy's baseline electro-optical/ infrared/ laser designator range finder, and a communications relay payload. Under development is the engineering for installation of two 4-pack 2.75" rocket launchers that will carry Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System laser-guided rockets. Live firings are to occur in 2004 with unguided rockets, followed by a guided version (when available). Other weapons initiatives next year include weapons testing with Viper Strike, a laser-guided precision munition.
While the Fire Scout VTOL (vertical take off and landing) craft is, by its nature, relatively slow and short-ranged when compared to fixed-wing aircraft and therefore not the type of UAV the Navy has been proposing for its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Program, this recently concluded test is directly applicable to many of the concepts being planned for BAMS. And with BAMS under increasing financial pressure because of an ever-tightening Navy budget, larger, more expensive UAVs may simply be beyond the Navy's ability to afford. Smaller UAVs such as Fire Scout may find a home within the BAMS Program. -- K.B. Sherman