The US Navy has confirmed that its first operational vertical take-off unmanned air vehicle (VTUAV) unit will be formed in 2013. Equipped with the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, HSM-35 will also operate manned Sikorsky MH-60Rs from NAS North Island in San Diego, California.
The formal activation of VTUAVs marks a first for the navy, which has previously operated the RQ-2 Pioneer and other small fixed-wing UAVs. The service has taken a more cautious approach on UAVs than other US military services, but is increasingly incorporating them into its force structure.
The navy is in the midst of major UAV competitions and purchases, including the Northrop MQ-4C broad area maritime surveillance (BAMS) system that will partially replace the Lockheed Martin P-3, and the Boeing/Insitu RQ-21 Integrator for tactical reconnaissance around ships. By the end of the decade, the navy also plans to deploy the unmanned carrier-launched airborne surveillance and strike (UCLASS) fleet, with the Northrop X-47B and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Avenger as likely frontrunners.
Details of the new squadron's formation have not yet been firmed, including the number of Fire Scouts and personnel. Squadron formation is scheduled to begin in mid-2012, according to the navy, with a declaration of operational readiness scheduled for mid-2013. Personnel will be cross-trained on both manned and unmanned platforms, and the navy says that NAS North Island is not yet equipped for VTUAV operations.
© Northrop Grumman
HSM-35 will be an expeditionary squadron, to be detached in small numbers on individual ships and small formations, in contrast to those attached to carrier air wings that travel with an aircraft carrier battle group.
The MQ-8B has previously been deployed for evaluations and testing, including two shipborne deployments on the USS McInerney and USS Halyburton. Three Fire Scouts are currently deployed in northern Afghanistan.