Cancelling plans for a tactical UAV in favour of Global Hawk will leave the US Navy without a surveillance system close to the frontline

The US Navy and Department of Defense decision to drop funding for the Northrop Grumman RQ-8A Fire Scout unmanned air vehicle (UAV) in favour of a USN buy of the same company's RQ-4A Global Hawk, may come back to haunt both organisations.

The in-development Fire Scout is a vertical-take-off and landing tactical UAV (VTUAV). Based on the Schweizer 330 helicopter, Fire Scout is intended to provide area surveillance and reconnaissance as well as battle damage assessment - it will allow the local commander to look over the next hill, the military's oldest requirement. The RQ-8A would have been a brigade and smaller formation asset, perhaps going ashore shortly after the US Marine Corps has established its bridgehead.

Global Hawk is a behemoth, a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV capable of providing a wealth of intelligence, be it imagery from the electro-optical or synthetic aperture radar sensors or an electronic order of battle provided by an ELINT suite. As seen during the war in Afghanistan, Global Hawk is an immensely capable UAV - and it is still only a prototype, with the programme only just moving into engineering and manufacturing development.

By putting all its eggs in one basket the USN may, however, find itself with the wrong capabilities in the next conflict. An analogy would be the situation that the US Air Force found itself in after retiring the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3-capable reconnaissance platform. Operating the SR-71 was undoubtedly expensive, and the belief was that surveillance satellites would provide the necessary coverage (the debate as to whether there was a still-secret "black project" on the drawing board is for another day).

Unfortunately, the US armed forces found during the 1991 Gulf War that this was not the case. Retasking satellites takes time, partly because of the associated bureaucracy.SR-71s could have been tasked and performed the mission in a matter of hours.

The Global Hawk's many capabilities and its ability to deluge the force commander with intelligence will mean it is in high demand and access to it will be jealously guarded. It will be a strategic asset looking down from 60,000ft (18,300m) and working in concert with maritime patrol aircraft, airborne early warning platforms and other intelligence gathering aircraft, as well as ships and submarines. When the company of marines comes under fire, or a frigate is attacked by coastal forces during littoral missions, the likelihood is that obtaining access to the Global Hawk to retask it to gather tactical intelligence will be near impossible, particularly as the force commander, and the Global Hawk control, could be on the other side of the world in the continental USA.

Fire Scout could be launched from just behind the frontlines or from the same flight-deck as used by the ship's helicopter. Intelligence would be almost immediate and flow straight to the person that needs it most.

There are other US tactical UAV programmes in progress, but the VTUAV offers a host of advantages to the naval force. A VTUAV is an organic asset: you can take it with you. Global Hawk requires a land base, and although it has transpacific range, it does not fly very fast, and the 40h endurance is not much good if the UAV is only over its target for 2h. The tactical system is close to the action, requiring relatively simple sensors. Will the Global Hawk need to descend from its operating altitude to "see" the fine detail obvious to a lower flying UAV, and if it does, what happens to the flow of information to the other users?

The USN could buy a tactical UAV off-the-shelf, but, like its current RQ-2A Pioneers, these would potentially be conventional take-off UAVs. Procured to spot battleship guns, Pioneer requires large platforms - 170m long, 17,000t LPD assault ships. In today's environment, there is no guarantee that a task force will include an LPD, and it may not include an aircraft carrier (and if it does, using a UAV from such a ship would hamper its launch and recovery cycle, reducing operational effectiveness). A task force may well be just a cruiser with a few destroyers and frigates.

With such a huge increase in the US defence budget, it surely would not have been too difficult to find a few hundred million dollars for initial Fire Scout production. Northrop Grumman will build five RQ-8As anyway, and it may be that testing will underscore its utility and money will be found for operational systems. If not, the debrief after a future conflict may repeat that post-Gulf War - a cry for more rapidly available intelligence controlled by the commanders closest to the frontline.

Source: Flight International