USN and USMC launches analysis of alternatives for Tier III UAV requirement

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The United States Navy has launched an analysis of alternatives for the US Marine Corps Tier III vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) unmanned air system (VUAS) requirement, confirming that it needs to be capable of operating alongside Bell MV-22 tilt rotor transports and Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighters in expeditionary operations at range.

A market survey released 5 September says: “The VUAS concept is closely linked to MV-22 and the F-35B JSF operations, and will require speeds and ranges to support these aircraft. The minimum speed required would be 200kt, but 240kt would be preferred.

“The VUAS must be expeditionary, ie operate simultaneously with other organic Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) aircraft from all air-capable ships and operate from austere, forward operating locations with minimal personnel and logistics footprint.”

The market survey says the new system is expected to display high levels of survivability, and incorporate “passive measures to the greatest degree possible to reduce system signature, and low visual, infrared and acoustic signatures, and reduced radar cross section to operate in a high threat environment.”

Notional operational concepts spelt out by the market survey propose a UAV system capable of 10 days continuous airborne coverage at a range of 100nm from the sea base. “Time on station must be sufficient to support the various missions and will be based upon the speed and distance required to arrive on station. A time on-station of 4h at 200nm is envisioned.”

Initial operational capability is planned from 2015, with an evolutionary approach to air vehicle roll-out proposed. The increment one system is required to be ship-deployable and provide “a baseline electro-optical / infrared, and radio communications capability”.

Primary operational roles will incorporate intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition, identification and designation, and beyond line of sight airborne communications relay services for voice, data and imagery. This includes conducting “target acquisition/designation and battle damage assessment for the F-35B and other strike platforms”. 

The new VUAS system is expected to be scalable “to support MAGTF operations from the relatively small Special Purpose MAGTF level to the larger, reinforced Marine Expeditionary Force, be capable of supporting any Joint Task Force to which a MAGTF is attached, and operate as a detachment without the loss of functionality or capability”.

VUAS will also be used to support combat search and rescue and tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel missions.

Systems will be required to operate from any USN or USMC air capable ship, as well as be capable of being transported by “organic MAGTF aircraft”. However, the VUAS must also possess “some degree of self-deployability and not rely on strategic lift to relocate once in theatre. The system must be all-weather capable to include operations in day/night, and adverse weather (rain, salt spray, fog, dust, transient icing and temperature extremes).”

Modular approaches are planned for payload integration to allow for rapid reconfiguration during operations. Potential future roles flagged by the market survey document include signals intelligence, escort roles to screen rotary and fixed wing missions, precision strike designation and weapons delivery, anti-air warfare capabilities, and shallow water mine and beach obstacle detection.

The 2015 service target for the tier III system will require the Marine Corps to sustain its aged Pioneer UAV RQ-2C Pioneer systems in service out to that same target date, or five years longer than previous withdrawal plans.

According to Captain Steve Wright, UAV section head in the USN’s air warfare directorate, “there have been decisions made to continue this programme through to Fiscal Year 2015, and refresh it a little bit”.

The USMC has two Pioneer squadrons which are currently being rotated through Iraq on a six-monthly cycle.

Speaking 31 August at the AUVSI Unmanned Systems North America conference in Orlando, Florida, Wright said that congressional funding approvals for VUAS acquisition will not be sought until FY 2010, as “a replacement for Pioneer in the tier III arena.”

Candidate systems nominated by Wright include Boeing’s Hummingbird medium endurance UAV, a Bell Eagle Eye tilt-rotor derivative and a version of the Northrop Grumman RQ-7 Firescout. Firescout has already been selected by the navy as the tactical UAV system for its Littoral Combat Ship programme. Responses to the market survey are due 17 October.

Wright also confirmed in his address that the navy has formally linked its own small tactical unmanned air system (STUAS) requirement, due to be funded in FY 2008, to the USMC’s own Tier II tactical UAV programme. The USMC is expected to announce a source selection on its current demonstration system competition by early October.

“We will join in their initial capabilities document and will develop a joint programme with the Marine Corps for this type of UAV. We are currently working on the Navy’s requirements for this; the USMC already have theirs pretty much well established. We are playing catch-up a little bit but we will be joining with the Marine Corps on this programme. Consequently there will be some savings by doing it together.”

The USN currently leases Boeing-Insitu Scan Eagle aircraft to provide its basic STUAS capability.