Tag Archives: Naval Aviation

Information Management and the Future of Naval Aviation

By Michael Glynn

Aviators and operators hitting the fleet today have reasons to be excited. Naval Aviation is in the process of recapitalizing the fleet with a stable of very capable platforms and sensors: the E-2D carrying the highly advanced APY-9 multifunction radar; the P-8A with a powerful acoustic system and the APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor radar; and the EA-18G armed with the very capable ALQ-218 electronic warfare system and Next Generation Jammer.

The advances are not restricted to manned platforms alone. The MQ-4C will enable wide area search and ISR operations, covering hundreds of thousands of square miles during 30 hour flights. The MQ-8C will bring impressive endurance to small deck surface ships. Longer dwell time promises to yield more collection opportunities and push more data to warfighters.

But observers should be cautioned that these new platforms, new sensors, and emerging autonomy won’t necessarily yield higher quality intelligence or more information to commanders. Warfighters today are fighting not to generate enough information, but rather to manage the incredible amounts of data that today’s sensors record and store. The fleet is struggling to keep from being drowned in a sea of data. The battle of the information age is to separate the useful information from the vast amount of meaningless noise.

Our sensors today already develop tremendous amounts of data. How do we store it, access it, make sense of it, and disseminate it? How will we manage this in the future with even more data as unmanned systems become more common? Can autonomy and data fusion be part of the answer? Will our training and intelligence analysis need to change? Let’s examine these challenges in detail.

Large Data Sets, Autonomy, and Data Fusion

The increasing use of unmanned systems will bring longer mission profiles and hence longer windows of time where sensors can collect. This will generate extremely large amounts of information each flight. To put the challenge in perspective, consider a modern maritime patrol aircraft, the P-8A and its partner, the soon to be deployed MQ-4C UAV. On an eight hour mission, a Poseidon will generate up to 900 gigabytes of sensor information. How much more data will the unmanned Triton generate during its thirty hour flights?

Any operator in the fleet will admit that the amount of data gathered by our platforms today far surpasses the bandwidth of our long range communication networks. What happens to data that can’t be transferred off an aircraft during its mission? How best to manage information that may be over a day “time-late” when a UAV lands? What sensor information should be broadcast to operators ashore and what should be saved for post-flight access? These are challenging questions for program mangers, requirements officers, and operators to solve.

In the same vein, the large data set generated by sensors today offers the possibility of using analytics to sift through them and draw conclusions. However, this will only happen if managers design suitable architectures to extract the data post-flight, store it, and make it available to customers. We will discuss this concept later.

A second broad trend worth mentioning is automation and the ability to use technology to parse the data. Algorithms in modern sensors allow these systems to automatically capture, store, and disseminate information. Legacy surface search radars required an operator to manually plot a contact, log its position on paper, and update the position as time went by. Modern surface search radars can automatically identify, assign track numbers, and update tracks of dozens, if not hundreds of contacts, and promote certain tracks to datalinks such as Link 16. The track information is also recorded on-board and available for post-mission download, analysis, and storage.

The benefits of automation and data storage don’t end there. Today’s platforms either already do or will soon employ data fusion engines that merge complimentary information from multiple sensors to produce a higher-fidelity view of the battlespace. These systems will identify a surface contact by radar and overlay an electronic line of bearing signal that arrives from the same direction as the radar contact. The fusion engine will recognize the radar signal is coming from that ship and by analyzing the parameters of the signal might be able to provide a possible identification of the type of vessel. The system will then merge the radar contact and the electronic emission into a single track and promote it automatically to a datalink.

The capability of our sensors and our ability to store the data they produce is improving rapidly. Unless we think about how we collect and process this data, we risk not being able to capitalize on the capability. Let’s examine some actions we can take to prevent the technological advances from outpacing our ability to control them.

Recognizing the Challenge

Our warfighters and intelligence professionals need to examine the process by which they collect, store, process, and disseminate information. We need to match technology with roles a computer can accomplish and utilize our manpower where the skills of a human are most needed. Too often, our warfighters are employed in roles to which they are poorly suited.

In parts of the fleet, an observer can find operators plotting the locations of ships in paper logs when mission systems are recording the same information and storing it with far greater fidelity and fewer errors. These mission systems scale easily, plotting not one track history, but thousands. The same observer could find aviators submitting message traffic to meteorological commands listing environmental measurements at one location when the aircraft they just flew recorded similar measurements at dozens of locations spread over hundreds of miles. The observer could also find an intelligence officer spending their time preparing a PowerPoint brief for a commander instead of analyzing the information brought home by crew.

Humans are excellent at recognizing patterns and drawing conclusions from data. When it comes to tasks like plotting and updating radar contacts or transcribing information in a log, a machine wins every time. Yet we can find numerous cases in which we ask humans to “beat the machine” and conduct a rote task when the technology exits to automate the process. We need to train our operators to adopt a “sensor supervisor” approach and use technology to automate post-mission product creation.

Action Ahead

Are we making wise use of the billions of dollars spent on collection platforms if we don’t examine our own information processing requirements? When we bring new sensors to the fleet, are we process mapping to determine how best to analyze and disseminate the data they collect? Do we even know what types of information our systems are collecting? In all of these cases, Naval Aviation as an organization can get better.

Leaders in Naval Aviation and the Information Dominance Corps have several solutions that can be implemented. The first is to examine and implement a “pull” based system of information portals where collection platforms can post data and customers of all types can access it. Currently, the fleet relies on a “push” model where a unit is assigned to accomplish a collection task, and then information is reported back to stakeholders. Under a “pull” system, information would be posted to IP accessible portals where any authorized user can discover the information and utilize it for their analysis purpose. This is a far more efficient system, prevents stovepipes, and will enable next generation “big data” analytics efforts including applications in the Naval Tactical Cloud.

Next, information analysis and dissemination need to be viewed as a key part of the kill chain and performed so as to optimize mission effectiveness. Is a trained intelligence analyst better suited to sifting through ambiguous data and drawing conclusions about adversary behavior or best used building PowerPoint slides? Software today can be easily adopted to automatically generate post mission message traffic, briefing slides, and other products. This allows human capital to be reallocated into value-added efforts.

In a similar manner, Naval Aviation should examine how we can train our aviators and operators to best employ their sensors. We should expose our young aviators and sensor operators to concepts of information management early in their training. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses both of the human sitting in the seat and the sensor system will go far to optimize our collection platforms. This will allow operators to let machines do what they do best, and apply human minds to the analytical tasks they are best suited for.


The platforms and sensors being introduced to the fleet are very capable and will grow more so with intelligent management of the data they produce. Let us write and think about how best to manage the information our warfighters gather as they prepare to deter and win the conflicts of tomorrow.

Lieutenant Glynn is a naval aviator and member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.

This article featured as a part of CIMSEC’s September 2015 topic week, The Future of Naval Aviation. You can access the topic week’s articles here

The Evolution of the Modern Carrier Air Wing

CIMSEC is excited to share that the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower will release on 8 October on Capitol Hill a report on the future of the aircraft carrier. Titled “Sharpening the Spear: The Carrier, the Joint Force, and High-End Conflict,” it systematically analyzes Carrier Strike Group vulnerabilities and offers a number of innovative recommendations in terms of concepts, capabilities, and capacities. This article is inspired by the forthcoming report.

By Timothy A. Walton

In the period following World War II, the U.S. Navy sought to leverage its relatively uncontested sea control to develop the capability to conduct nuclear strike missions from carriers. Until the removal of carriers from the Single Integrated Operational Plan in 1976, the nuclear strike mission led to the development of heavy attack aircraft that could conduct long-range missions against Communist targets. Carrier aviation also played a crucial role in providing fighter, attack, and electronic warfare aircraft for employment in conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) aircraft carriers were decommissioned in 1975, thus concentrating airborne ASW capability in the now multi-mission large deck carriers.

During the 1980s, a carrier air wing normally consisted of nine squadrons of various aircraft: two F-14 fighter squadrons, one E-2C AEW squadron, one EA-6B electronic warfare squadron, one S-3 ASW squadron, one A-6 medium-attack squadron, two A-7 light-attack squadrons, and one helicopter squadron, for a total of approximately 90 aircraft.[1] In the 1980s, the Navy decided to introduce the F-18 in order to replace the A-7. Trading range for speed in order to increase aircraft survivability, the F-18’s 370 NM combat radius paled in comparison with the A-7’s 608 NM combat radius, drawing significant criticism.[2] Test pilots decried: “Replacing the A-7 with the F-18 will constitute a reduction in battle group standoff range from the enemy and/or a reduction in ordnance delivered per aircraft on the target with no measurable increase in accuracy. […] Our current ability to engage the Soviet fleet at ranges well beyond that of their newest surface-to-surface weapons will markedly diminish, and the vulnerability of our battle groups in war at sea will increase concomitantly.”[3] The F-18 (and its successor Super Hornet) would replace the F-14 as well, continuing a trend of reduction of range in the air wing. Additionally, the air wing’s medium-attack aircraft, the A-6 (with a combat radius of approximately 1,000 NM) was retired in the 1990s and the A-12, its envisioned long-range, stealthy replacement, was cancelled.

By 2015, a typical carrier air wing consists of two squadrons of F-18C/D Hornets strike aircraft (10-12 aircraft per squadron), two squadrons of F-18E/F Super Hornets strike aircraft (10-12 aircraft per squadron), one squadron of EA-18G Electronic Attack aircraft (5 aircraft per squadron), one squadron of E-2C/D AEW aircraft (4 aircraft), and varying numbers of SH-60 and MH-60 helicopters, for a total of approximately 64 aircraft.[4] The C-2 Carrier Onboard Delivery detachment aircraft do not fall under the CVW construct.  The air wing eliminated S-3s that had provided organic open ocean ASW capabilities, replacing it with the short range SH-60 helicopter. Moreover, the carrier’s dedicated organic aerial refueler, the KA-6D, had been replaced first with tanking from the S-3B following elimination of its ASW role, and then solely with buddy tanking from F-18Es and F-18F’s. This significantly reduced the organic range of the air wing, made the air wing more reliant on Air Force tanking, and reduced the number of aircraft in the air wing available for combat missions.

Compared to the 1980s, the contemporary air wing is significantly smaller. In the 1980s a typical air wing had approximately 90 aircraft, 60 of which were fighter or strike aircraft; in contrast, contemporary air wings hold a mere 64 aircraft approximately, 44 of which are fighter or strike aircraft. Consequently, the fighter or attack portion of the air wing has been cut by more than a quarter and the total size of the air wing has diminished by approximately 30%. The planned introduction of the F-35C to the air wing is expected to further cut the size of squadrons by 2-4 aircraft.[5] The F-35C’s low observable features, advanced sensors and networking, and approximate 613 NM combat radius will improve carrier fighter performance compared to the 390 NM combat radius of the F-18E/F.[6]  Overall, though, the size of the air wing has been shrinking. Ironically, the Navy has gone on to procure the FORD Class carrier, capable of embarking more aircraft and conducting operations at a higher sortie rate than the NIMITZ Class.

In summary, contemporary and projected air wings display three key characteristics: they are shorter in range than Cold War predecessors, host significantly fewer aircraft, and lack dedicated fixed-wing aircraft for ASW and aerial refueling. Differences between the current and projected air wing include the addition of the F-35C and potential incorporation of a carrier-launched unmanned aircraft system. Of note, Section 220 of the FY 2001 defense authorization act stated, “It shall be a goal of the Armed Forces to achieve the fielding of unmanned, remotely controlled technology such that by 2010, one-third of the aircraft in the operational deep strike force aircraft fleet are unmanned.”[7] Clearly, the Joint Force has failed to meet Congress’ 2010 goal.

On 8 October 2015, the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower will release a report that will examine whether it is worthwhile to continue to build large, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, given their considerable cost and mounting Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) threats to sea-based operations.[8] In our report, Seth Cropsey[9], Bryan McGrath[10], and I will systematically analyze the employment of the carrier air wing as an element of a Carrier Strike Group and as a component of the Joint Force. The report will examine the role that carrier strike groups (CSGs) play in current and projected concepts of operation, especially against mature and evolving A2/AD threats such as China.

We can say that the current air wing has inadequate capability, range, numbers, and qualitative superiority to adequately counter the most challenging threats, in particular the threat posed by China. Given the growing importance of carrier aviation in Joint CONOPS, as Chinese sea control threats and threats against land-based tactical aviation rise, the Navy should address the existing and projected capability gaps in the carrier air wing. In general, this requires the Navy to increase air wing striking range, develop sea control aircraft, and develop new weapons. Lastly, the Department of Defense and Congress should critically evaluate the naval aviation portfolio, including potential portfolio trades between land-based, permissive environment aircraft and sea-based, contested environment aircraft. 

We thank CIMSEC for the opportunity to share these tidbits and look forward to sharing the more detailed study with you at its roll-out on 8 October.

Timothy A. Walton is a principal of Alios Consulting Group, a defense and business strategy consultancy. 

This article featured as a part of CIMSEC’s September 2015 topic week, The Future of Naval Aviation. You can access the topic week’s articles here

[1] Norman Polmar. Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and its Influence on World Events, Volume II-1946-2006, Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2008, 302.

[2] Richard Halloran. “Test Pilots Say Dual-Purpose F-18 Jet Is Unsuitable in Bomber Role”, The New York Times, 11 November 1982.

[3] Ibid.

[4] N.B. 4-6 of an air wing’s F-18E/F aircraft are normally used for the buddy tanking mission.

[5] Sam LaGrone. “Navy to Base F-35Cs at NAS Lenmoore”, U.S. Naval Institute, 2 October 2014,


[6] “Selected Acquisition Report: F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Aircraft (F-35)”, Department of Defense, 14, http://breakingdefense.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/04/F-35-2013-SAR.pdf#page=14.

[7] Ronald O’Rourke. “Unmanned Vehicles for U.S. Naval Forces: Background and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service, RS21294, 25 October 2006, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RS21294.pdf.

[8] “Center for American Seapower”, Hudson Institute, http://www.hudson.org/policycenters/25-center-for-american-seapower

[9] “Seth Cropsey”, Hudson Institute, http://www.hudson.org/experts/530-seth-cropsey

[10] “Bryan McGrath”, Hudson Institute, http://www.hudson.org/experts/687-bryan-mc-grath

Parallax and Bullseye Buoys: The Future of Naval Aviation

By LT Jon Paris

It was Day 43 of the war everyone said would never happen: The war that assured mutual ruin and held little tangible benefit for either side. Yet, here he was, hurtling through the sky in the pitch black nothingness of the western Philippine Sea in mind-numbing turbulence and a driving rain. One wouldn’t think that silence would be possible with the rain and the wind and the two howling General Electrics back aft, but it was silent. Eerily so. Lieutenant “Slider” Wilmore pondered this reality as he checked his instruments and reflected on the air wing’s losses to date. They were not catastrophic, to be sure, but for a man on his third cruise, they were more than he had ever seen. They were also the first of his career that were credited to the enemy, rather than pilot error or malfunctions.

 In this command and control denied environment with no GPS or voice communications, the challenge of getting the force from the Boat to the beach and back was infinitely exasperated. The Navy quickly innovated, the industrial base responded swiftly, and “bullseye” became a tangible object. The Navy thus required its ship drivers and pilots to execute precise maneuvers based on pre-planned maritime trigonometry and dead-reckoning. The concept was on the fringes, it had obvious weaknesses, but it was all they had.

These thoughts – and many others – flickered through his brain like an insomniac flips through the channels of late-night TV. He snapped out of it when his newly-installed, low-tech WRN-100X waypoint tracker flashed three times, though. He sighed, looked down into the inky nothingness, took a deep breath, and hoped that his dead-reckoning had been correct. No Carrier Control Area, no GPS, no TACAN, no nothing, as far as he was concerned. All he had was another example of futuristic low-tech; a lonely, beeping ALQ-80 Self-Correcting Bullseye Buoy bobbing in the middle of nowhere, launched that day by the submarine CHICAGO. With this on his mind, he flipped down his night vision goggles, rolled his Rhino to port and pulled back hard. He was either in the Break, or he was bleeding speed over a watery grave – there was no way to be sure. His radios were silent, of course, as they had been for weeks. He slapped down his flaps, then his gear. After steadying up, he lowered his tailhook, eased off the power, and prayed that this blind-man’s waltz would guide him to the Groove. No lights were visible – anywhere. Up until recently, this type of recovery – bastardized as it was – would never have been conducted at night. The mighty enemy hackers to the west had done their number, though. They had exploited the recovery methods specifically developed for just this type of denied environment to devastating effect. Now, he and his mates were looking for the Boat in a slightly more advanced manner than Columbus had looked for the New World.

The sweat on his back made him shiver. There – another three flashes of his waypoint tracker, itself completely reliant upon the buoy’s ability to self-correct for currents and his own trigonometric skills conducted at 500 knots some 2 hours in the past. Another pull to port, cutting some more power. As he settled onto his final course, he saw nothing. His heart sank along with his altitude. Easy with it, easy with it. The mantra pulsed through his brain. Then, rising and falling with the swells, he made out the impossible – a slightly blacker spot than the surrounding abyss. He puckered tight and squinted, just as a Chem-Light was broken and hurled into the middle of the blackness. He aimed for that spot and nearly closed his eyes as he sunk lower and lower towards the endless depths. CRASH! Though the sudden deceleration was welcome and expected, it never ceased to take his breath away. He retarded the throttles, raised his hook, and followed the ghostly Yellow Shirts across the lightless deck. Lieutenant Wilmore, soaked, jittery and tired, had not killed anyone tonight, for that was not his mission. The two jet-black ALQ-X99 pods under the wings were his mission and, many thought, the U.S. Navy’s only hope.

LT Wilmore sized up his surroundings. He was in “Oz” – Flag Country. Not a Lieutenant’s favorite place to be and certain to cause any junior officer additional anxiety – something he did not need as he stood there still trembling from his mission, cold in dripping flight suit. His CO stood in front of him and gave him a reassuring nod. He knocked and they both entered the space together.

The two aviators found themselves surrounded by the Strike Group Commander, Rear Admiral Patrick Aiken and his staff. “Have a seat,” the admiral said after shaking the junior pilot’s hand. “Let us cut-to-the-chase. How did they respond to the ALQ-X99? Did they fall for it? We only lost two tonight so you must have had a pretty hairy time up there. Iron Hand… I never thought we would bring it back. Are you alright? Tell me what you saw.” The admiral spit out his comments rapid-fire as Lieutenant Wilmore sat there in a daze, thinking about his special cargo and of the terror he had felt only hours ago. He slowly blinked.

The adversary had the U.S. Navy in a corner. Their coastal defenses seemed impenetrable, extended out hundreds of miles, and appeared to have an endless inventory. They had more aircraft in theater than the Americans and were not afraid to lose a handful in pursuit of big gains. Their surface ships had been hit hard, but their submarines still roamed the seas hunting for targets.  And their surveillance was top-notch. The U.S. Navy had to do its best to remain invisible while at the same time, launching highly-technical and heavily-laden Alpha Strikes from extreme ranges to hit both coastal and inland targets. Winning the war depended on the Navy’s success. Unfortunately, this meant facing an angry swarm of fighter and attack aircraft, as well as a blinding throng of missiles reaching out like tentacles for F/A-18s, destroyers, and carriers, alike.  While the enemy’s inventory was deep and their supply lines were well-defended, no force could keep up their blistering pace of sorties and missile launches without the occasional pause for reloading, re-targeting, maintenance, and rest.

Operation Iron Hand was a Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses mission-set executed by both the Navy and Air Force during Vietnam. It focused on localizing Surface-to-Air gun and missile radars ahead of the strike package and then neutralizing the threats with anti-radiation missiles before they could cause the friendly formations harm. In today’s war, localizing was less of a problem. The enemy was not being shy about using radars or their associated weapons, not to mention the fact that most of the launchers, and of course the ground-based aircraft, were mobile. The Navy quickly realized that this was no Vietnam and that there would be no sneaking in to exploit the enemy’s thirst for a kill prior to overwhelming them with a strike-force. The Hail-Mary solution had actually come from one of the most heart-pounding chapters of naval fiction ever to grace a Tom Clancy novel. “Dance of the Vampires” depicted a Soviet strike on a U.S. Carrier Battle Group. The strike was unique in that the Soviets led off with a massive launch of drones, duping the Americans into committing most of its anti-air missiles and its interceptors and leaving it nearly defenseless once the barrage of anti-ship missiles was loosed. Though modern surface-borne electronic decoys were nothing new, they were vulnerable to submarine attack, had limited capabilities, and did nothing to address a deceptive air battle – relatively useless in this scenario.

The ALQ-X99 attempted to solve this. It used extremely realistic electronic decoys – blips on the enemy radar – absorbed existing radar cross sections, and utilized a form of parallax to show a massive ghost-force that was sufficiently off-set from the aircraft carrying the pods. A number of F/A-18s now flew on the deck and carried these pods to the front, attempting to draw the enemy to a fight that did not exist while allowing strike packages to attack when the enemy was either exhausted or otherwise focused. Though the ploy was easy enough for the enemy to decipher after repeated use, they could not afford to ignore it. Thus, Naval Aviators like LT Wilmore were left to keep their critical packages intact, stay alive, and truly feel the mental exhaustion and strain of today’s Operation Iron Hand II.

His blink seemed to last a year. He snapped to. “I did what I had to do to stay alive, sir. Missiles exploded to my left and right. The bad guys were everywhere. They ate it up. The Alpha Strike got through. The ALQ-X99 works, sir, but I don’t know if I’ll ever stop shaking.

LT Jon Paris is a Surface Warfare Officer and Department Head. He has served aboard three Aegis ships in the Western Pacific and Middle East.

This article featured as a part of CIMSEC’s September 2015 topic week, The Future of Naval Aviation. You can access the topic week’s articles here

What’s the Buzz? Ship-Based Unmanned Aviation and its Influence on Littoral Navies during Combat Operations

By Ben Ho Wan Beng


“Unmanned aviation” has been a buzzword in the airpower community during recent years with the growing prevalence of unmanned systems to complement and in some cases replace peopled ones in key roles like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Insofar as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly used for strike, their dominant mission is still ISR because of the fledging state of pilotless technology. This is especially the case for sea-based drones, which are generally less capable than their brethren ashore. That said, several littoral navies have jumped on the shipborne UAV bandwagon owing to its relative utility and cost-effectiveness.[1] And with access to such platforms, how would these entities be affected during combat?

For littoral nations without an aerial maritime ISR capability in the form of maritime patrol aircraft (or only having a limited MPA capability), the sea-based drone can make up for this lacuna and improve battlespace/domain awareness. On the other hand, for littoral nations with a decent maritime ISR capability, the shipborne UAV can still play a valuable, albeit, complementary role. The naval drone also offers the prospect of coastal forces amassing more lethality as it refines the target-acquisition process, enabling its mother ship to attack the adversary more accurately.

The Littoral Combat Environment

Littoral operations are likely to be highly complex affairs. As esteemed naval commentator Geoffrey Till said: “The littoral is a congested place, full of neutral and allied shipping, oil-rigs, buoys, coastline clutter, islands, reefs and shallows, and complicated underwater profiles.”[2] One key reason behind the labyrinthine nature of littoral warfare is that it involves clutter not only at sea, but also on land and in the air. Especially troublesome is the presence of numerous ships in the littorals. To illustrate, almost 78,000 ships transited the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways, in 2013.[3]

Such a complex operating milieu would place a premium on the importance of battlespace awareness, which could make or break a campaign. As fabled ancient Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu asserted: “With advance information, costly mistakes can be avoided, destruction averted, and the way to lasting victory made clear.” This statement was made over 2,000 years ago and is still as relevant today, especially when considered against the intricacies of littoral combat that hinder sensor usage. Indeed, shipborne radar performance during littoral operations can be significantly degraded by land clutter. For instance, the 1982 Falklands conflict manifested the problems sea-based sensors had in detecting and identifying low-flying aircraft with land clutter in the background.[4] Campaigning in congested coastal waters would also necessitate the detection and identification of hostile units in the midst of numerous other sea craft, which is by no means an easy task. All in all, the clutter common to littoral operations presents a confusing tactical picture to naval commanders, and the side with a better view of the situation ­– read greater battlespace awareness – would have a distinct edge over its adversary. Sea-based UAVs can provide multispectral disambiguation of threat contacts from commercial shipping by virtue of onboard sensor suites, yielding enhanced situational awareness to the warfare commander.

Improved Battlespace Awareness         

Traditional manned maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) would be the platform of choice to perform maritime ISR that helps in raising battlespace awareness in a littoral campaign. However, not all coastal states own such assets, which can be relatively expensive[5], or have enough of them to maintain persistent ISR over the battlespace, a condition critical to the outcome of a littoral operation. This is where the sea-based drone would come in handy. Unmanned aviation has a distinct advantage over its manned equivalent, as UAVs can stay airborne much longer than piloted aircraft. To illustrate, the ScanEagle naval drone, which is in service with littoral navies such as Singapore and Tunisia and commonly used for ISR, can remain on station for some 28 hours.[6] In stark contrast, the corresponding figure for the P-3 Orion MPA is 14 hours.[7] The sensor capabilities of some of the naval drones currently in service make them credible aerial maritime ISR platforms. Indeed, they are equipped with sophisticated technologies such as electro-optical and infrared sensors, as well as synthetic aperture radar (SAR) systems.

To be sure, the shipborne UAV is incomparable to the MPA vis-à-vis most performance attributes, and the two platforms definitely cannot be used interchangeably. The utility of the naval drone lies in the fact that it can complement the MPA by taking over some of the latter’s routine, less demanding surveillance duties. This would then free up the MPA to concentrate on other, more combat-intensive missions during a littoral campaign, such as attacking enemy ships. And for a littoral nation without MPAs, the shipborne UAV would be especially valuable as it can perform aerial ISR duties for a prolonged period.

The naval drone can contribute to information dominance in another way. In combat involving two littoral navies, the side with organic airpower tends to have better domain awareness over the other, ceteris paribus. However rudimentary it may be, the shipborne drone constitutes a form of organic sea-based airpower that extends the “eyes” of its mother platform. The curvature of the Earth limits the range of surface radars, but having an “eye in the sky” circumvents this and improves coverage significantly. Being able to “see” from altitude allows one to attain the naval equivalent of “high ground,” that key advantage so prized by land-based  forces. Indeed, the ScanEagle can operate at an altitude of almost 5,000 meters.[8] In the same vein, the Picador unmanned helicopter has a not inconsiderable service ceiling of over 3,600m.[9] In essence, the UAV allows its mother ship to detect threats that the latter would generally be unable to using its own sensors.

All in all, shipborne drones enable littoral fleets to have a clearer tactical picture, translating into improved survivability by virtue of the greater cognizance of emerging threats that they offer to surface platforms. Having greater battlespace awareness also means that the naval force in question would be in a superior position to dish out punishment on its adversary.

Increased Lethality

Sea-based UAVs would enable a littoral navy to target the opposing side more accurately as they can carry out target acquisition, hence increasing their side’s lethality. In this sense, the drone is reprising the role carried out by floatplanes deployed on battleships and cruisers in World War Two. During that conflict, these catapult-launched aircraft acted as spotters by directing fire for their mother ships during surface engagements. In more recent times, during Operation Desert Storm, Pioneer UAVs from the American battleship Wisconsin guided gunfire for their mother ship. Several current UAVs can fulfill this role. For instance, the Eagle Eye can be used as a guidance system for naval gunfire; ditto the Picador with its target-acquisition capabilities. There is also talk of drones carrying out over-the-horizon targeting so as to facilitate anti-ship missile strikes from the mother platforms.[10]

Though land-based UAVs are increasingly taking up strike missions, the same cannot be said for their sea-based counterparts as very few of the latter are even in service today in the first place due to their complexity and cost. The Fire Scout is one such armed naval UAV. This United States Navy rotorcraft can be armed with guided rockets and Hellfire air-to-surface missiles; however, with a unit cost of US$15-24 million[11], it is not a low-end platform. All in all, unarmed shipborne drones are likely to be the order of the day for littoral navies, at least in the near term, and such platforms can only carry out what they have been doing all this while, tasks like ISR and target acquisition.


In summary, the sea-based drone can, to some extent, complement the maritime patrol aircraft in the aerial ISR portfolio at sea by helping to maintain battlespace awareness for the littoral navy during a conflict. The naval UAV’s target-acquisition capability also means that it can improve its owner’s striking power to some extent. These statements, however, must be qualified as current shipborne drones can only operate in low-threat environments – in contested airspace, their survivability and viability would be severely jeopardized, as they are simply unable to evade enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. In the final analysis, it can perhaps be maintained that the rise of sea-based UAVs constitutes incremental progress for littoral navies, as the platform does not offer game-changing capabilities to these entities.

Going forward, ISR is likely to remain the main mission for sea-based drones in the near future. Though the armed variant seems to offer a breakthrough in this state of affairs, it must be stressed that it is neither a simple nor cheap undertaking. If and when defense industrial players provide lower-cost solutions to this issue in the future, however, the striking power of coastal fleets would increase considerably and with that, the nature of littoral and naval warfare in general would profoundly change. Until then, the sea UAV-littoral navy nexus will be characterized by evolution, not revolution.

Ben Ho Wan Beng is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore; he received his master’s degree in strategic studies from the same institute. The ideas expressed above are his alone. He would also like to express his heartfelt gratitude to colleague Chang Jun Yan for his insightful comments on a draft of this article.

This article featured as a part of CIMSEC’s September 2015 topic week, The Future of Naval Aviation. You can access the topic week’s articles here


[1] For instance, the Scan Eagle drone has a unit cost of $100,000. See www.nytimes.com/2013/01/25/us/simple-scaneagle-drones-a-boost-for-us-military.html?_r=0.

[2] Geoffrey Till, Seapower: A Guide for the Twenty-first Century (London: Routledge, 2013), 268.

[3] Marcus Hand, “Malacca Straits transits hit all-time high in 2013, pass 2008 peak,” Seatrade Maritime News, February 10, 2014, accessed September 4, 2015, www.seatrade-maritime.com/news/asia/malacca-straits-transits-hit-all-time-high-in-2013-pass-2008-peak.html.

[4] Milan Vego, “On Littoral Warfare,” Naval War College Review 68, No. 2 (Spring 2015): 41.

[5] Some of the more common MPAs include the P-3 Orion, which is in service with nations like New Zealand and Thailand which has a unit cost of US$36 million, according to the U.S. Navy. See www.navy.mil/navydata/fact_display.asp?cid=1100&tid=1400&ct=1.

[6] “ScanEagle, United States of America,” naval-technology.com, accessed September 5, 2015, www.naval-technology.com/projects/scaneagle-uav.

[7] “P-3C Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft, Canada,” naval-technology.com, accessed September 5, 2015, www.naval-technology.com/projects/p3-orion.

[8] “ScanEagle, United States of America.”

[9] “Picador, Israel,” naval-technology.com, accessed September 5, 2015, www.naval-technology.com/projects/picador-vtol-uav.

[10] Martin Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 274.

[11] United States Government Accountability Office, Defense Acquisitions: Assessment of Selected Weapons Program, March 2015, 117.