Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Droning About Drones

After yesterday's post, I'm already tiring of drones - but they are going to be a growing and important part of the Navy, so we need to keep an eye on them.

I am a fan of drones, but in the context of what they are and can realistically be, not to the degree that the usual futurist fan-boy suspects who seem to believe that they at last have the technological answer for everything and who believe what every program manager and industry PPT tells them.

The ground truth is out there, you just have to look for it.

Case in point; long decom'd VP-19 is to re-animated later this year as VUP-19;
After years of testing and providing surveillance in 5th Fleet, the Navy is creating the first squadron to fly long-range unmanned surveillance planes.

Unmanned Patrol Squadron 19, or VUP-19, will operate the MQ-4C Triton, an unmanned aerial vehicle with a 130-foot wingspan that can fly more than 10 miles high and spend 28 hours aloft. The craft is part of the service’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program.

... It’s estimated there will be 108 officers and 290 enlisted in the squadron. Of those, 104 officers and 126 enlisted will be at Jacksonville, with the rest at Point Mugu, said AIRLANT spokesman Cmdr. Phil Rosi.

VUP-19 is expected to set up three “orbits” for the Triton to patrol. Each orbit is expected to have four aircraft and a runway, and Big Red will be responsible for ones in 5th, 6th and 7th fleets. In all, the Navy eventually wants five orbits around the globe, and each orbit will have forward-deployed Tritons, as well as sailors who will have line-of-sight control when the UAVs take off and land. Air vehicle operators will head to the various operational bases on a rotational basis.
That will be a lot of officers to run through the Millington Diktat. Career management will be interesting, "#1 of 75" will be nice to have, I guess. Good luck with that.

So. Three orbits of four aircraft each. 12 aircraft. If memory serves me right, deployed P-3 squadrons had 8-9 aircraft. 20 years ago they were all mission birds, now notsomuch. They did that with about 1/3 the number of officers. So much for big personnel savings.

As people have been saying for well over a decade to the Navy - if you think UAS will save you tons of money in manpower, you are wrong. Some, but not tons. The argument can be made that when you consider BAMS doesn't even buy you much multi-mission flexibility ... not much of a bargain when viewed from that perspective, thought I would be more comfortable arguing FOR BAMS than against it, as long as it is look at with clear eyes. Heck, if nothing else, I like the late Cold War retro P-3 paint job on the things.

Back to BAMS more sexy brother - a little reality to the Flash Gordon guys out there.
Ruling out weapons aboard the X-47B demonstrator raises an issue for UCLASS. Since the demonstrator’s tests, currently occurring at Patuxent River, Maryland, are supposed to inform the specifications for UCLASS, how can the Navy learn anything about operating UCLASS’ weapons systems and integrating them with the other systems on the drone?

Winter said that the Navy staff is talking with fleet commanders to understand the “best strike capability that the UCLASS should carry.”

“I will tell you that it will be something that, from a munitions perspective, it will be something that’s already been certified… that is carried in our magazines on our aircraft carriers,” Winter continued. “There is no new weapons development program associated with UCLASS, and that strike capability will be organic to the UCLASS system.”
Proven, affordable weapons ... and in the end, probably not a lot. Sane. Let's see the plan for secure bandwidth next and redundancy.

Like I said though - UCAV/UCLASS is simply a reusable TLAM with a bit more flexibility and ES utility, nothing more. There are some fun concepts and PPT out there - but for the next couple of decades, that is what you should plan to have.

  Other things to consider, for instance; the loss rate. From The Guardian (I know, I know);
The figures show the military has lost one Reaper drone since 2007 – it is the only UAV that carries Hellfire missiles as well as surveillance and intelligence-gathering equipment. The drone, which has not been replaced, cost £10m.

There have been nine losses of another large UAV, the Hermes 450. Eight of the £1m aircraft were lost in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. The surveillance fleet has halved in size because of the incidents. According to our analysis, there have been more than 100 crashes of the larger class of military unmanned aerial vehicles in over 20 countries since 2007.
We here about the ones that are near the political-media complex in Pax River, but the others it seem happen in shadow.

Drones are good and useful - and will be even more if we make sure we remain informed, sober, and respectful of the fact that these are not revolutionary. They are evolutionary and will be another tool in the box Nothing more - nothing less.

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