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Sending the UAV’s to Sea

June 15, 2009
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Catapult floatplanes on USS Tennessee (BB-43), circa 1938.

Catapult floatplanes on USS Tennessee (BB-43), circa 1938.

Aircraft on Surface Ships

The history of aircraft launched from the sea has its beginnings in the primitive wooden flight decks attached to conventional gun armed cruisers and battleships early in the air power age. Later catapult seaplanes graced the decks of gun ships for “spotting” purposes, enhancing the capabilities of naval artillery at the extreme range limits.

With the advent of adequate numbers of aircraft carriers during World War 2, the catapult planes were gradually phased out in US Navy service. Aircraft didn’t return to the smaller ships until naval shipbuilders began designing helicopter equipped naval escorts in the 1960s, specifically to chase the newer deep diving and stealthy nuclear submariners then entering service.

Pioneer RPV on USS Wisconsin (BB-64) during Operation Desert Shield 1991.

Pioneer RPV on USS Wisconsin (BB-64) during Operation Desert Shield 1991.

Another turning point in the history of naval aircraft at sea occurred during the First Gulf War in 1991. Two of the world’s last existing battleships used Pioneer aerial drones to accurately site their huge 16 inch batteries against Iraqi coastal targets. The naval aircraft, while in a different guise, had come full circle, returning to its roots!

Navy Lags Behind

Amazingly since 1991, the USN has failed to take full advantage of such small but increasingly effective technology at sea. Certainly there has yet to appear a clear doctrine for the use of UAVs from Navy warships. Taking the lead instead, the US Army and Air Force have deployed and refined their use in the recent Middle East land wars. UAVs of various types, shapes, and capabilities are used on a regular basis for reconnaissance, close air support, and something reminiscent of strategic bombing against Al Qaeda and Taliban enclaves in the mountains of Pakistan.

The navy has tentative plans for the launching  of very long range UCAS drones from its aircraft carriers at some future point. While such a strategy might enhance the survivability of the supercarrier, allowing it to operate further from shore compared to current manned naval aircraft in service, such plans fail to take advantage of less costly short range planes used to good effect by the Army and Air Force. The unmatched persistence, the proving lethality, endurance, and stealth of such craft in warfare cannot be exaggerated.

Predator UAV flies above the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) on  Dec. 5, 1995.

Predator UAV flies above the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) on Dec. 5, 1995.

Aviation Corvettes

UAVs as the US MQ-9 Reaper or the MQ-8 Fire Scout would require launching close to shore to be of much use in a land campaign. In such mine and missile infested waters at the littorals big warships would be at a disadvantage, but the shallow seas are the perfect domain of the 1000 ton corvette.

Modern corvette warships come in various types, from high-end missile corvettes to low end patrol ships idea for fighting pirates and smugglers. For the deployment of naval UAVs we would add a third category, the aviation corvette.

The aviation corvette would carry 2-3 UAVs, but no more than 5. These would be launched by catapult or rocket assist, retrieved by netting as the Iowa battleships off Iraq in 1991. A “through-deck” ship with a full flight deck would take advantaged of a hook landing. The drones would be equipped with weapons proved in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, such as JDAM and Hellfire missiles. Armament for the corvette should only be basic point defensive guns and missiles, so as to focus precious space on the aircraft.

In wartime, several aviation corvettes could cruise off a coast supporting operations several hundred miles inland. Unlike a Tomahawk missile, the UAVs could return again and again, limited only by combat losses or the depletion of ammo.

A RQ-8A Fire Scout UAV prepares for landing aboard USS Nashville.

A RQ-8A Fire Scout UAV prepares for landing aboard USS Nashville.

Against an aggressor, the small ship would pose less a target, and less a loss compared to a supercarrier in this role. Save perhaps in the initial stages of a conflict, she would be an affordable alternative to a large-deck aircraft carrier.

The Hurdles

That last statement is a profound one in a Navy with bureaucracies jealous of traditional warships and their assigned missions. If she is ever to see the light of day, the aviation corvette would have to endure enormous criticism on the limits of smaller vessels, from air-minded admirals who might see her as a threat to funding of Big Ships. An even greater wrong would be not to take advantage of a leap in technology which has proven so effective in modern war. The focus then should not be on the limits of a small hull, but on the enhanced qualities of her parasite UAVs.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. DA 1775 militia permalink
    January 3, 2010 3:17 am

    Correction: Visual feed/broadcast rather than audio.

    The preditors and some of the other drones were builts with COTS parts to make them cheaper and get them out the door faster. The signals from the video are broadcast. Just like TV. If you have the right software and can find the right signals. That is what happened. If I had the time or money I could do the same with cell phones and an other broadcast signal. What makes it tougher in the US in the millions of signals in the air. I think the number of signals in Iraq and Afganistan are slightly lower in count.

    It is not the end of the world nor a mmilitary screw up. Just an enemy being a bit more tech savy then we gave them credit for. Some times the small details get missed. This should help sharpen a few pencils in the military establishment.

  2. DA 1775 militia permalink
    January 3, 2010 2:15 am

    Thanks Mike. Any info would be appreciated. Please post any up-dates. I would like to help relay bidding info to interested of We the People in a Iowa Class BB reutilization event– US first.

    UAV’s are HOT ! :-) USD $26.00 (2009 fiat dollars) may intercept US UAV audio feed if anyone is interested in COTS off-the-shelf InTel for border security. Iran did it– talented and resourceful among We the People may, too. I helped build Black Tower West Range Huachuca UAV airstrip, however, do not have UAV COTS/off-the-shelf intercept skills. This blog is right on target in terms of UAV as legacy of BB CAT LAUNCH REECE eyes. A BB CAT LAUNCH REECE pilot and Coral Sea Lady Lex fighter pilot recently died of old age in Arizona and it sure would be a shame to see the Iowa Class BB legacy die of old age too… It is very nice to know you have your eye on the ball.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 1, 2010 7:00 am

    Someone correct me but I don’t know any plans to scrap them. Wisconsin just got released for use as a Museum, and she is the last Iowa:

  4. DA 1775 militia permalink
    January 1, 2010 5:16 am

    When will the Iowa class battleships be scrapped ?


    The ships served through the remainder of WWII and through the Korean War before being placed in mothballs. They remained in mothballs until the 1980’s when they were modernized and recommisioned. The Iowa was placed back into mothballs in 1990. Her sister ships soon followed but not before serving in the Gulf War. The Missouri was converted into a museum ship and placed on permanent display at Pearl Harbor in 1992. The New Jersey and the Wisconsin joined the Iowa in the mothball fleet. They probably would have been scrapped had it not been for the “Section 1011 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1996” which required the Navy to maintain atleast two of the battleships until the navy could provide the Marines with fire support that equalled or exceeded that of the Iowa class ships. The Navy projected that their gun and missile systems achieve that capability between 2003 and 2008.

    Edited by DANIEL HENWOOD (
    Background info provided by the Navy Fact File & FAS Website & Navy Technology

  5. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 17, 2009 9:12 am

    SHHHH…Don’t give them any ideas!

    You’re right about Galrahn. Hope the government didn’t get mad about what i said about their amphibious ships!

  6. Bill permalink
    June 17, 2009 9:08 am

    .and, to add to my ‘consternation’ and paranoia….Gahlran’s ID is down. ;-0

  7. Bill permalink
    June 17, 2009 9:07 am

    Ruh roh. This morning’s Fire Scout flight path orbit is directly over the porch where I drink my morning coffee. The operator can probably see I use cream in my coffee and that my eyes are bloodshot from staying up too late last night. I wonder if the Fire Scout has the ability to locate my computer and is homing in for a retaliatory strike. I would have thought Burleson’s or CDR Salamander’s location would have been higher on the hit list. ;-)

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 16, 2009 9:27 pm

    I’m impressed. This is the future and I think the surface guys might leave the carrier boys further behind, as they did in the 1990s with Tomahawk.

  9. Bill permalink
    June 16, 2009 9:07 pm

    BTW..the day got more interesting overhead. The Fire Scout and a Pioneer were flying ‘joint ops’. Seriously cool thing to see…

  10. Bill permalink
    June 16, 2009 9:06 pm

    hmmm..good point. ‘They’ might be coming for us. ;-)

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 16, 2009 11:55 am

    Keep your window shades down Bill!

  12. Bill permalink
    June 16, 2009 10:18 am

    Fire Scout buzzing around overhead again today, again starting very early a.m. It’s been circling for over 4 hours and counting..pretty persistent flight time I’d say.

    Guess that is a sign that it will be overhead for many days/weeks/months to come if NESEA’s previous UAv testing activities are any indication; heck, they still ‘flight test’ Pioneer UAV variants in the same airspace to this day.

    Cute little bugger…I want one. ;-)

  13. Bill permalink
    June 15, 2009 2:43 pm

    “That doesn’t sound like the most appropriate recovery system for a missile-armed UAV, but perhaps this is just me.”

    *chuckle* I don’t want to be on that L&R detail neither. ;-)

    The old Pioner net recovery method was pretty ‘ugly’ and that bird was dirt simple and tough. I happened to be working in the same NAVAIR office as the Pioneer team at the time the ‘bugs’ were being worked out of the recovery method and the folks assigned that task were having a lot of ‘crack ups’ along the way for finding a setup that worked ‘most’ of the time.

  14. Scott B. permalink
    June 15, 2009 11:39 am

    Mike Burlseon said : “The aviation corvette would carry 2-3 UAVs, but no more than 5. These would be launched by catapult or rocket assist, retrieved by netting as the Iowa battleships off Iraq in 1991.”

    That doesn’t sound like the most appropriate recovery system for a missile-armed UAV, but perhaps this is just me.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 15, 2009 9:25 am

    Smitty, what about the small diameter bomb?

  16. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 15, 2009 9:10 am

    Distiller and all: It is interesting that the USN is very exited about using unmanned vehicles for reconnaissance, pretty much where the manned airplane was in the 1920s, 1930s. UCAVs at sea are the future because they can be spread among the fleet, as a “reusable cruise missile” which warfighters have been pleading for at least since the 1990’s. Add precision guided munitions to the mix and you have individually potent weapons where before we used to think in terms of naval airpower as squadrons and airwings.

  17. B.Smitty permalink
    June 15, 2009 9:00 am


    I doubt JDAMs will fit on anything much smaller than a Reaper. Hellfire maybe, but you need a big airframe to drop larger munitions. Corvettes will have trouble handling such a large UAV.

  18. Distiller permalink
    June 15, 2009 8:19 am

    Ok, let’s be more precise here:

    Strategic ISR UAVs are land based beasts, launched from very far away, staying up days, in the future maybe weeks and month. C2 and data relay by satellite.

    Theatre and task force level ISR and scout UAVs (in the future perhaps also cargo UAVs) in the watery realm are clearly a flight deck vessel job. C2 and data relay preferably by aerial platforms in theatre.

    Leaves tactical UAVs. A wide range, from a few kilos to hundreds of kilos. ScanEagle/KillerBee-Bat are surprisingly good and versatile, but the limitations of light/slow are apparent. Couple of interesting recovery techniques out there – para-sail or gyroglider lifted nets are cool, but weight limited.

    I think for the heavier tac UAVs a combination is needed, first to decrease the energy level, and then to actually catch/land the thing. A guided parafoil to land it on the flight deck of a DDG could be interesting, or otherwise aerial recovery by helicopter is an option (like a Corona catcher), or even wet recovery (with airbags to keep it from sinking).

    I also see a certain value in speed for tac UAVs (rapid reaction). A VLS compatible ISR UAV would be of interest, something like an (evolved) MALD launched ballistically by SM booster (or like a KBP Hermes with an UAV instead of a warhead), and circiling a target area for a few hours. Could also be a one-way toy, like MALD is for now.

  19. June 15, 2009 8:06 am

    As the lone airship guy, my take is that a properly designed and constructed airship would BE…..that aerial corvette.

    “The unmatched persistence, the proving lethality, endurance, and stealth of such craft in warfare cannot be exaggerated.”

    Indeed. And then some.

  20. Bill permalink
    June 15, 2009 7:53 am

    Interesting timing for this subject. I was sitting on my porch having my morning coffee and noted a persistent and obnoxious helo noise that I did not recognize….it was flying in big lazy circles over the island for perhaps an hour. After a while its flight path took it almost directly overhead and I could see it was a Fire Scout. First time I’ve seen one flying.

    Pax NAS Webster Field annex (where all UAVs come to be tested ad nauseaum sooner or later..we’ve grown used to the persistent buzz of chain saw engines that fly) is visible directly across the water from my place. Looks like we’ll be listening to Fire Scouts for a while now too.


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