July 02, 2012
Credit: Credit: Northrop Grumman
Guy Norris Los Angeles
Maritime patrol is a mission as old as the naval service, but with the advent of the unmanned MQ-4C Triton, the seagoing version of the Global Hawk, the U.S. Navy plans to elevate this definition to an entirely new level.
The move to unmanned air systems (UAS) for the yeoman's work of long-range surveillance is part of a two-pronged transformational strategy that includes replacing aging P-3 patrol aircraft with the Boeing P-8A. However, as the apparently still unexplained crash of a maritime Global Hawk demonstrator just three days before the June 14 Triton roll-out shows, the transition remains more challenging than the basic development of a new concept of operations.
The Navy appeared determined not to let the loss of the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Block 10 demonstrator (BAMS-D) overshadow the unveiling of the first MQ-4C at Northrop Grumman's facility in Palmdale, Calif. Officials note that the lost demonstrator, one of five modified ex-U.S. Air Force RQ-4 vehicles paving the way for the MQ-4C, is radically different from the gray-and-white-painted aircraft now being readied for its first flight.
The 116-ft.-wingspan demonstrator crashed in unpopulated wetlands June 11 near Bloodsworth Island in Dorchester County, Md., 22 mi. east of its base at NAS Patuxent River. Although declining to comment on the progress of the investigation, the Navy is confident it will gain a clear picture of what happened. “It will take weeks to sort it out, but one of the good things with UAVs is all the information on the health and state of the vehicle it collected,” says Rear Adm. Bill Shannon, unmanned aviation and strike weapons program executive officer.
Shannon adds that the accident took place 10 min. after takeoff while the RQ-4 was still orbiting in a climbing spiral within restricted airspace, enroute to its operating altitude of 50,000 ft. Images of the crash site appear to show that the RQ-4 impacted in a relatively flat attitude, having evidently descended in a slow spiral.
The investigation is assessing the mishap against causes of previous Global Hawk losses. Those ranged from inadvertent radio transmission on the aircraft's flight termination frequency to incorrectly installed hardware and a faulty fuel nozzle valve.
Meanwhile, preparations continue for first flight of the initial MQ-4C by the end of 2012, says Northrop Grumman. For the Navy, flight testing and build-up to initial operational capability in 2015 cannot come soon enough. “This capability has never been needed more as we rebalance toward the Pacific,” says Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mark Ferguson. Describing the UAS as a force multiplier, Ferguson says, “BAMS will provide an asymmetric advantage to the U.S. Navy. Long-range persistent surveillance transforms the nature of warfare at sea.”