The MQ-9 Reaper UAV, once called “Predator B,” is somewhat similar to the famous Predator. Until you look at the tail. Or its size. Or its weapons. It’s called “Reaper” for a reason: while it packs the same surveillance gear, it’s much more of a hunter-killer design. Some have called it the first fielded Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV).
The Reaper UCAV will play a significant role in the future USAF, even though its capability set makes the MQ-9 considerably more expensive than MQ-1 Predators. Given these high-end capabilities and expenses, one may not have expected the MQ-9 to enjoy better export success than its famous cousin. Nevertheless, that’s what appears to be happening. MQ-9 operators currently include the USA and Britain, who use it in hunter-killer mode, and Italy. Several other countries are expressing interest, and the steady addition of new payloads are expanding the Reaper’s advantage over competitors…
Latest updates[?]: Sikorsky Aircraft won an $11.9 million contract modification, which provides non-recurring engineering to include investigations, systems engineering support, risk analysis and integration development in support of the CH-53K Data Transfer Unit and Defensive Electronic Countermeasure System Replacement Phase III, to replace existing subsystems within the CH-53K production aircraft. The CH-53K is the United States Marine Corps’ (USMC) heavy lift replacement for the CH-53E. Work will take place in Maryland, Connecticut, Iowa, Texas and Vermont. Expected completion date is in June 2024.
The U.S. Marines have a problem. They rely on their CH-53E Super Stallion medium-heavy lift helicopters to move troops, vehicles, and supplies off of their ships. But the helicopters are wearing out. Fast. The pace demanded by the Global War on Terror is relentless, and usage rates are 3 times normal. Attrition is taking its toll. Over the past few years, CH-53s have been recalled from “boneyard” storage at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ, in order to maintain fleet numbers in the face of recent losses and forced retirements. Now, there are no flyable spares left.
Enter the Heavy Lift Replacement (HLR) program, now known as the CH-53K. It aims to offer notable performance improvements over the CH-53E, in a similar airframe. The question is whether its service entry delay to 2018-2019 will come too late to offset a serious decline in Marine aviation.
Latest updates[?]: The US Navy has sent its third and final ship Zumwalt Class destroyer off to sea trials, its maker, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, announced. The USS Lyndon B. Johnson, christened in April 2019, left the Bath Iron Works shipyard on Friday and is expected to be commissioned by the Navy in 2023, after its combat systems are fully installed and activated.
67% of the fleet
DID’s FOCUS Article for the DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class “destroyer” program covers the new ships’ capabilities and technologies, key controversies, associated contracts and costs, and related background resources.
The ship’s prime missions are to provide naval gunfire support, and next-generation air defense, in near-shore areas where other large ships hesitate to tread. There has even been talk of using it as an anchor for action groups of stealthy Littoral Combat Ships and submarines, owing to its design for very low radar, infrared, and acoustic signatures. The estimated 14,500t (battlecruiser size) Zumwalt Class will be fully multi-role, however, with undersea warfare, anti-ship, and long-range attack roles. That makes the DDG-1000 suitable for another role – as a “hidden ace card,” using its overall stealth to create uncertainty for enemy forces.
True, or False?
At over $3 billion per ship for construction alone, however, the program faced significant obstacles if it wanted to avoid fulfilling former Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter’s fears for the fleet. From the outset, DID has noted that the Zumwalt Class might face the same fate as the ultra-sophisticated, ultra-expensive SSN-21 Seawolf Class submarines. That appears to have come true, with news of the program’s truncation to just 3 ships. Meanwhile, production continues.
Latest updates[?]: The US Navy announced, that it has finished a test of its first littoral combat ship-based unmanned mine detection system. The Unmanned Influence Sweep System designed for the LCS has a mine countermeasures unmanned surface vehicle, or MCM USV, and a towed minesweeping payload to sweep magnetic or acoustic mines, the Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Small Combatants.
Trimaran LCS Design
(click to enlarge)
Exploit simplicity, numbers, the pace of technology development in electronics and robotics, and fast reconfiguration. That was the US Navy’s idea for the low-end backbone of its future surface combatant fleet. Inspired by successful experiments like Denmark’s Standard Flex ships, the US Navy’s $35+ billion “Littoral Combat Ship” program was intended to create a new generation of affordable surface combatants that could operate in dangerous shallow and near-shore environments, while remaining affordable and capable throughout their lifetimes.
It hasn’t worked that way. In practice, the Navy hasn’t been able to reconcile what they wanted with the capabilities needed to perform primary naval missions, or with what could be delivered for the sums available. The LCS program has changed its fundamental acquisition plan 4 times since 2005, and canceled contracts with both competing teams during this period, without escaping any of its fundamental issues. Now, the program looks set to end early. This public-access FOCUS article offer a wealth of research material, alongside looks at the LCS program’s designs, industry teams procurement plans, military controversies, budgets and contracts.
Latest updates[?]: According to Jane’s, the US Navy is not keen to use the MQ-4C in an airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) role. The Hudson Institute’s senior fellow, Bryan Clark, had told Janes that the new sensors onboard IFC-4 variant of the MQ-4C have passive sensing capability to be used for AEW&C. Doug Shaffer, Northrop Grumman vice-president and program manager for Triton programs, also revealed that the company is thinking about having the E-2D and MQ-4C share each other’s pictures in demonstrations. But the mission set has been ruled out by Captain Dan Mackin, the maritime UAS manager. Mackin wants the unmanned air vehicle to focus on maritime surveillance.
BAMS Operation Concept
The world’s P-3 Orion fleets have served for a long time, and many are reaching the end of their lifespans. In the USA, and possibly beyond, the new P-8 Poseidon Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft will take up the P-3’s role. While the P-8’s base 737-based airframe offers strong service & maintenance arguments in its favor, the airframe is expensive enough that the P-3s cannot be replaced on a 1:1 basis.
In order to extend the P-8 fleet’s reach, and provide additional capabilities, the Poseidon was expected to work with at least one companion UAV platform. This DID FOCUS Article explains the winning BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) concept, the program’s key requirements, and its international angle. We’ll also cover ongoing contracts and key events related to the program, which chose Northrop Grumman’s navalized MQ-4C Triton Global Hawk variant.
Latest updates[?]: MBDA announced it will for the first time pair a CAMM (Common Anti-Air Modular Missile) missile with an upgraded Sea Viper command and control (C2) system on board the Royal Nay’s Type 45 destroyers. CAMM offers both close-in and local-area air defence, and will complement Aster 30, strengthening the anti-air defence capability of the Royal Navy.
The 5,200t Type 42 Sheffield Class destroyers were designed in the late 1960s to provide fleet area air-defense for Britain’s Royal Navy, after the proposed Type 82 air defense cruisers were canceled by the Labour Government in 1966. Britain built 14 of the Type 42s, but these old ships are reaching the limits of their operational lives and effectiveness.
To replace them, the Royal Navy planned to induct 12 Type 45 Daring Class destroyers. The Daring class would be built to deal with a new age of threats. Saturation attacks with supersonic ship-killing missiles, that fly from the ship’s radar horizon to ship impact in under 45 seconds. The reality of future threats from ballistic missiles, and WMD proliferation. Plus a proliferation of possible threats involving smaller, hard to detect enemies like UAVs. Overall, the Type 45s promise to be one of the world’s most capable air defense ships – but design choices have left the cost-to-value ratio uncertain, and limited the Type 45s in other key roles. A reduced 6-ship program moved forward.
The 5th-generation F-22A Raptor fighter program has been the subject of fierce controversy, with advocates and detractors aplenty. On the one hand, the aircraft offers full stealth, revolutionary radar and sensor capabilities, dual air-air and air-ground SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) excellence, the ability to cruise above Mach 1 without afterburners, thrust-vectoring super-maneuverability… and a ridiculously lopsided kill record in exercises against the best American fighters. On the other hand, critics charged that it was too expensive, too limited, and cripples the USAF’s overall force structure.
Meanwhile, close American allies like Australia, Japan and Israel, and other allies like Korea, were pressing the USA to abandon its “no export” policy. Most already fly F-15s, but several were interested in an export version of the F-22 in order to help them deal with advanced – and advancing – Russian-designed aircraft, air-to-air missiles, and surface-to-air missile systems. That would have broadened the F-22 fleet in several important ways, but the US political system would not or could not respond.
This DID FOCUS Article tracks continuing maintenance and fleet upgrade programs, contracts, and timely news. A separate public-access feature offers a profile of the USAF’s most advanced fighter, and covers both sides of the F-22 Raptor program’s controversies.
Latest updates[?]: Insitu won a $12.5 million modification, which increases the ceiling to provide additional air vehicles, support equipment and spares in support of the RQ-21A Blackjack Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) and ScanEagle UAS for the Navy and Foreign Military Sales customers. The Blackjack can be deployed in persistent maritime and land-based tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, data collection, target acquisition and dissemination missions. ScanEagle has a range of 1,500km and an endurance of more than 28 hours. The air vehicle can operate at speeds between 80km/h and 126km/h and the cruise speed is 90km/h in level flight.
ScanEagle’s base Insight UAV platform was originally developed by Washington state’s Insitu, Inc. to track dolphins and tuna from fishing boats, in order to ensure that the fish you buy in supermarkets is “dolphin-safe”. It turns out that the same characteristics needed by fishing boats (able to handle salt water environments, low infrastructure launch and recovery, small size, 20-hour long endurance, automated flight patterns) are equally important for naval operations from larger vessels, and for battlefield surveillance. A partnership with Boeing took ScanEagle to market in those fields, and the USMC’s initial buy in 2004 was the beginning of a market-leading position in its niche.
This article covers recent developments with the ScanEagle UAV system, which is quickly evolving into a mainstay with the US Navy and its allies. Incumbency doesn’t last long in the fast-changing world of UAVs, though. Insitu’s own RQ-21 Integrator is looking to push the ScanEagle aside, and new multiple-award contracts in the USA are creating opportunities for other competitors. Can Insitu’s original stay strong?
Latest updates[?]: The American MQ-25 programme has successfully conducted the first ever aerial refueling operations between a crewed receiver aircraft and an uncrewed tanker. According to the US Navy, the successful flight “demonstrated that the MQ-25 Stingray can fulfill its tanker mission using the Navy’s standard probe-and-drogue aerial refueling method”.
UCAS-D/ N-UCAS concept
The idea of UAVs with full stealth and combat capabilities has come a long way, quickly. Air forces around the world are pursuing R&D programs, but in the USA, progress is being led by the US Navy.
Their interest is well-founded. A May 2007 non-partisan report discussed the lengthening reach of ship-killers. Meanwhile, the US Navy’s carrier fleet sees its strike range shrinking to 1950s distances, and prepares for a future with fewer carrier air wings than operational carriers. Could UCAV/UCAS vehicles with longer ranges, and indefinite flight time limits via aerial refueling, solve these problems? Some people in the Navy seem to think that they might. Hence UCAS-D/ N-UCAS, which received a major push in the FY 2010 defense review. Now, Northrop Grumman is improving its X-47 UCAS-D under contract, even as emerging privately-developed options expand the Navy’s future choices as it works on its new RFP.
Latest updates[?]: The Gray Eagle Extended Range (GE-ER) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) completed initial flight tests equipped with a new brushless generator system, providing over 50% more power than the current system. The tests were held on May 13, 2021, at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. The initial flight test of the system marks an important milestone towards upgrading the GE-ER fleet with generators that will significantly improve reliability and dramatically reduce platform sustainment costs. The new generator also provides electrical power to support expanding mission scenarios for the UAS, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. said.
Its initial battles were fought within the Pentagon, but the US Army’s high-end UAV has made its transition to the battlefield.
The ER/MP program was part of the US Army’s reinvestment of dollars from the canceled RAH-66 Comanche helicopter program, and directly supports the Army’s Aviation Modernization Plan. The US Air Force saw this Predator derivative as a threat and tried to destroy it, but the program survived the first big “Key West” battle of the 21st century. Now, the MQ-1C “Gray Eagle” is in production as the US Army’s high-end UAV. As CENTCOM’s wars end, however, the Gray Eagle may find that staying in the fleet is as hard as getting there.
This FOCUS article offers a program history, key statistics and budget figures, and ongoing coverage of the program’s contracts and milestones.