Robots, drones, lasers! The Navy may be on a reduced budget, but that's not stopping it from building the maritime fighting force of the future.
Wonderland of weapons
Take a small legion of top navy brass from around the globe, pack them into a convention hall full of mocked-up fighter jets, the latest in unmanned aerial hardware, rows of matte gray precision guided projectiles, menacing robotic shipboard defense cannons, and myriad high-powered cameras and sensors — so many sensors! — and you can start to envision Sea-Air-Space, the Navy’s annual defense technology confab. Designed to put the latest in naval armament and support systems in the same room with the very people who use them, Sea-Air-Space is part industry trade show, part arms bazaar, and part defense industry social event.
It’s also something of a bellwether for the global defense industry. Sea-Air-Space is often the venue for big reveals from both the Navy and the biggest names in aerospace and maritime technology–names like Boeing BA , Lockheed Martin LMT , Northrop Grumman NOC , Textron TXT , and Huntington Ingalls HII . But it’s also a place where contractors and militaries offer glimpses into their ongoing programs of record and let us see — or at least extrapolate — what the fighting forces of tomorrow will look like.
What does arms procurement in the age of austerity look like? Think robots, drones, and retrofits that make the dumb weapons of previous generations into more efficient, more cost effective tools of modern defense.
MQ-8C Fire Scout
The Navy’s first aircraft carrier-capable unmanned fighter jet is still several years away, but its first carrier-launched helicopter is already in service and on its fifth deployment in places like Afghanistan and Africa (one was even shot down over Libya in 2011 while conducting surveillance and reconnaissance during the civil war there). The Navy currently owns roughly 30 of these little 24-foot-long unmanned, semi-autonomous helicopters, known as the MQ-8B Fire Scout, which it currently uses as non-weaponized, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms around the world.
At Sea-Air-Space, Northrop Grumman unveiled the first scale model of the next iteration in the Fire Scout series, the MQ-8C. At nearly twice the size of its predecessor (its airframe is borrowed from the Bell 407 civilian helicopter, which in some variations can seat seven passengers), the MQ-8C is a real glimpse at the future of unmanned tactical helicopter flight. And for the Navy, which plans to integrate its Fire Scouts into its next generation of combat ships (in fact, its new Littoral Combat Ships more or less depend on an unmanned vertical takeoff and landing vehicle), the MQ-8C is also a way of maintaining a capability while hopefully driving down long-term costs.
“UAVs have a really good story from an affordability perspective,” says Mike Fuqua, director of business development for Northrop Grumman’s tactical unmanned systems. While they do require a shipboard maintenance team and operating crew, systems like Fire Scout are generally lighter and more fuel-efficient than manned helicopters, can devote more space to better and more complex sensor payloads, can be constructed from existing commercial components (like that Bell 407 airframe), and are tactically less vulnerable to boot. Had a manned ISR aircraft been shot down over Libya in 2011, the associated costs could’ve been extremely high — up to and including the incalculable cost of human life. For this reason alone, the Fire Scout, though not inexpensive (total program cost stood at $2.8 billion as of the end of 2012), will likely continue to receive Navy support.
Advanced Precision Kill Weapon
What’s a digital age fighting force to do with storehouses full of 2.75-inch unguided, analog air to ground rockets? BAE’s Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (it’s the smaller projectile on the far right in the image above) turns formerly dumb munitions into precision laser-guided rockets ready for 21st-century warfare.
The beauty of the APKWS is that it requires no hardware upgrade to the aircraft that use it. These particular rockets are fairly universal among American military branches and can be fired from workhorse helicopter platforms like the AH-10 or MH-60 Black Hawk as well as fixed-wing aircraft like the A-10 Warthog or the Harrier “jump jet.” The Department of Defense has thousands upon thousands of these conventional, unguided rockets laying around (known as Hydra 70s, they are basically modern variants of the Mk 40 rocket used in the Korean and Vietnam wars). But on a modern battlefield, such unguided rockets are not only somewhat antique — they’re potentially dangerous for close-in friendly ground troops as well as any non-combatants in the area of operations.
Defense technology firm BAE’s solution: a laser guidance module that can be retrofitted onto existing rockets already in the arsenal. Tucked between the rocket motor and the small warhead in the nose of the rocket, the guidance system can detect targets “painted” with a laser by forward operators on the ground, the attacking aircraft itself, or other aircraft in the area (that’s known as a “buddy lase”). By embedding this small technology package on a proven, battle-tested armament, BAE has figured out how to turn existing stores of dumb weapons into precision, guided smart weapons. That not only allows the armed services to get the most out of money already invested, but it means fewer rockets have to be fired to take out a given target. At just under $28,000 a shot, that makes a real difference.
Blitzer Rail Gun
General Atomics is best known for its Predator and Reaper drones, but where Naval warfare technology is concerned it has something equally futuristic in the works: its Blitzer Railgun program.
Railguns are electromagnetic projectile launchers that accelerate their payloads — which could be anything from an aircraft to an artillery round — by carefully manipulating an electromagnetic current running the length of two parallel rails. The Office of Naval Research has long researched railguns as potential future replacements for its naval surface guns, as they launch projectiles on flatter trajectories to much greater distances with far more devastating force. In U.S. Navy tests, railguns have launched projectiles at speeds in excess of 1.5 miles per second, and that’s really just the beginning of what railguns could eventually do.
While railguns aren’t quite ready for service — aside from being too energy intensive, the technology isn’t completely reliable just yet — General Atomics brought a prototype to Sea-Air-Space simply to show off how far they’ve come with both launcher and projectile design. But General Atomics isn’t the only defense company heavily into the railgun race. BAE Systems has also developed railgun prototypes for the Navy, and Boeing’s Phantom Works has developed precision sabot projectiles for railguns to launch.
ReconRobotics Throwbot XT is a concept so simple and a design so clever that it’s no wonder both the U.S. Marines and domestic tactical law enforcement teams have enthusiastically embraced it. Roughly the size and shape of a tallboy beer can, the hardy little robot can be thrown through windows, over walls, or onto rooftops and then controlled remotely to roll around and take stock of a situation. An easy-to-use handheld controller also contains a screen that shows the operator what the Throwbot XT’s onboard camera is seeing (an IR camera even provides vision in the dark).
Officers and soldiers can toss their Throwbots into dangerous situations to provide critical situational awareness without sending a human being into harm’s way. And at roughly $13,000 per Throwbot, it was one of the more inexpensive technologies we came across at Sea-Air-Space.
Battlefield Life Support
Speaking of life-saving technologies, the U.S. Marines’ Monitoring Oxygen Ventilation and External Suction (MOVES) platform is something like life support for warfighters right at the point of battle. It can be fixed to a stretcher when a wounded Marine reaches triage and can provide the necessary oxygen for survival throughout transit and on into the hospital. The various onboard sensors that continuously monitor the patient’s vitals are powered by two independent batteries so they can be hot-swapped without having to cut power to the unit even for a moment. Once the Marine reaches the hospital, MOVES can be taken off the stretcher and integrated right into the hospital environment so the wounded party never has to be transitioned from one life-support platform to another.
Wave Glider SV3
Liquid Robotics‘ expertise is wave-powered robotic platforms — that is, seafaring robots that propel themselves across the ocean by converting energy harvested from the ocean’s own waves into propulsion. Their self-sufficient Wave Glider Surface Vehicle 2 set a world record for an ocean crossing by an autonomous watercraft last year when it arrived in Brisbane, Australia, after completing a trans-Pacific crossing that began 9,000 nautical miles away in San Francisco and took just over a year.
But Liquid Robotics isn’t in it for the distance records. Its new SV3 platform is about two feet longer than the SV2 that crossed the Pacific and is now wired up to accommodate something like four times more hardware like sensor payloads, computing resources, or batteries for energy storage. The company’s SHARC (that’s Sensor Hosting Autonomous Remote Craft) is a version of the aforementioned technology trimmed down and customized for the U.S. Navy. With a limitless power source provided by the ocean itself and no radar or acoustic signature to give it away, the Navy can basically drop its SHARCs in the middle of the ocean and leave them out there for months at a time. If a boat or submarine comes within range of its sensors it can tip off nearby vessels via satellite link.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon found a renewed passion for large-scale, lighter-than-air airships, which seem like ideal platforms for long-duration surveillance and monitoring as well as for hauling cargo to places inhospitable to large fixed-wing aircraft (read: places with no runways). But with the wars in Iraq and now Afghanistan winding down, the Pentagon has lost interest in its massive airships, and the Navy, Air Force, and Army have each killed a massive air ship program over the last couple of years, essentially mothballing hundreds of millions in research and development.
For those who still believe that a second golden age of airships is realistic even without Pentagon support, there’s Aeroscraft. Designed by California-based Worldwide Aeros Corp., the lighter-than-air Aeroscraft could one day lift 66 tons vertically into the air and deposit it somewhere else, no runway necessary. One day, that is, when the company moves beyond testing with a scaled down prototype and gives us something to look at other than a model.