In February and March, the US Navy conducted three 28-hour surveillance flights employing the Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. It was used in an exercise testing its capabilities to perform persistent counter-drug surveillance along the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean in conjunction with P-3C flights over areas known to be busy routes for drug smugglers. During the tests the UAV’s sensors were tested for their efficacy in detecting low-flying airplanes from an altitude of 60,000 feet and for their ability to locate and track fast-moving small boats. According to the Navy, both goals were met.
The Global Hawk was launching from Edwards Air Force Base, CA, after which it flew along the southern US, then the Gulf of Mexico, and finally to the Caribbean. After launch, the flights were controlled from the manufacturer’s test facility in San Diego, CA. Targets detected and tracked near Corpus Christi, TX, and Key West, FL, were passed to a P-3C, which used the information to acquire and classify the targets.
This exercise is in line with the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program, an adjunct to the P-8A Multimission Maritime Aircraft that is to replace the Navy’s P-3Cs, and perhaps the EP-3E spook bird as well. The P-8 was originally to have replaced the EP-3E before budget considerations forced the Navy to accept the US Army’s new Aerial Common Sensor aircraft – to replace the Guardrail and the Airborne Reconnaissance-Low aircraft -- for this purpose. However, as development of the ACS aircraft proceeded, it became apparent that this smaller aircraft – the Embraer 145 -- was just too small to carry all the required gear and could not provide the required onboard electrical power required. Then in January, 2006, the Army also bailed-out of the -145, a program that would have been worth almost $900 million. This sets the entire ACS program back from six to ten years at a time when an ever-constricting budget is running up against an ever greater need for a replacement aircraft. The ACS program was to have supplied the Army 38 airplanes and the Navy 19, beginning in 2010. This recent Navy test of the Global Hawk suggests that the new ACS aircraft may be an unmanned vehicle. The DOD is moving to replace manned with unmanned aircraft as quickly as possible, to the delight of casualty-adverse politicians but to the dismay of military aircrews. If the Navy returns to the P-8 to replace the EP-3E, events will have come full circle.
BAMS was to have supplied 50 dedicated UAVS to augment 108 P-8As (down from an initial target of 155). It is unlikely, however, in view of an ever tighter Navy budget that is concentrating upon building the Littoral Combat Ship, the DD-21 destroyer, and the Virginia-class submarine, that the Navy’s current inventory of 251 aging P-3Cs will be replaced by the goal numbers of P-8s and BAMS UAVs.