June 19, 2012:
Despite the U.S. Navy selecting the RQ-4 Global Hawk as its robotic maritime patrol aircraft, rival UAV manufacturer Global Atomics has gone ahead and developed a maritime patrol version of its MQ-9 Reaper UAV. Called the Reaper ER (for Extended Range), this model can stay in the air 40 hours at a time and carry about a ton of cameras, radars, and communications gear. Given the rapid development of smaller, lighter, and more rugged sensor technology in the last two decades, a Reaper ER can be very competitive with the naval version of the navalized RQ-4, known as BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance).
Earlier this year BAMS began operating with the fleet. Circling above the task force at 22,500 meters (70,000 feet), BAMS monitored sea traffic off the Iranian coast and the Straits of Hormuz. Anything suspicious was checked out by carrier or land based aircraft, or nearby warships. The BAMS aircraft fly a 24 hour sortie every three days. The first production BAMS will be available in a few months, and these models will begin entering service in three years.
The navy plans to buy 20 BAMS and 117 P-8As to replace 250 P-3Cs. This replacement process is supposed to be complete in about a decade. The new surveillance aircraft provide more information over a wider area.
The U.S. Air Force recently stopped buying RQ-4s and is planning on selling some of those it already has. The RQ-4 has a range of over 22,000 kilometers and a cruising speed of 650 kilometers an hour. The first three RQ-4Bs 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 supposed to be a lot more reliable. Early A models tended to fail and crash at the rate of once every thousand flight hours.
The U.S. Air Force found the B model was not enough of an improvement in reliability and was increasingly unhappy with a lack of cooperation from the manufacturer. General Atomics has a much better relationship with its users and noted that nations like Israel and India were having success using smaller UAVs (more like the 1.2 ton Predator than the 4.6 ton Reaper) for maritime reconnaissance. So General Atomics is going after the naval reconnaissance market, including the one Northrup Grumman has with BAMS.
The maritime UAV is seen as the ultimate replacement for all manned maritime patrol aircraft. 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, having all the other gear operated from the ground. This enables the aircraft to stay in the air longer and carry more gear. The major remaining issue is reliability. UAVs are becoming more reliable but the crashes drive up the cost of operating a UAV fleet. A BAMS crashed on June 11th during a test flight. Last December a Reaper crashed in the Seychelles Islands, while returning from a maritime surveillance mission (looking for Somali pirates).