An X-47B unmanned aircraft flies past an MQ-4C Triton waiting on the taxiway April 15 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. Both aircraft are currently undergoing testing at Patuxent River.

Unmanned State of Affairs

Rear Adm. Mark Darrah, Program Executive Officer for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons

The Navy’s leader in unmanned aviation and strike weapons talks about the technology, priorities and strategy behind the rapidly growing force of the future.

The new normal

Today we are operating unmanned systems all over the world. Small tactical unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) like Wasp, Puma, Raven and Scan Eagle are supporting combat operations across multiple areas of operations. A larger class of unmanned systems, the MQ-8B Fire Scout, is operating alongside the MH-60R Seahawk helicopter as a composite manned/unmanned detachment aboard a deployed Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Meanwhile, the Navy’s largest UAS, the MQ-4C Triton currently in development, will work in tandem with the P-8A Poseidon to generate never-before-seen levels of maritime awareness. And ultimately, we will deliver an unmanned system that will seamlessly integrate into carrier operations.

These unmanned systems allow us to go beyond the limitations of human endurance, giving us a new level of persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). Leveraging these capabilities greatly expands our battlespace awareness necessary to succeed in future maritime operations.

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus spoke to a crowd at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space Symposium in April and said, “Unmanned systems, particularly autonomous ones, have to be the new normal in ever-increasing areas.”

With a significant focus on developing and fielding UAS and integrating with other domain unmanned capability, the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons (PEO (U&W))’s contribution to the development of UAS is critical for continuing current and future maritime operations.

New maritime strategy

Earlier this year, SECNAV released “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower.” This updated strategy broadly describes changes in the world and specifically focuses on changes to maritime access that our forces must address. Unmanned systems will play an integral role in filling capability needs identified in this updated strategy.

We envision Navy UAS to be employed across a variety of scenarios:

MQ-4C Triton providing broad area maritime surveillance around the globe

Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) integrated into carrier air wings, providing direct support and maritime domain awareness for our carrier strike groups

MQ-8 Fire Scout supporting anti-surface warfare, surface warfare or mine warfare from littoral combat ships

RQ-21A Blackjack deploying from ships or land supporting maritime objectives

These systems will increase battlespace awareness by providing persistent surveillance of wide areas of ocean, the littorals and close-in coastal regions, the carrier battle group and Marine and Special Operations Forces personnel. Pushing into the future, we will integrate these aviation systems with unmanned systems operating on and below the world’s oceans.

Battlespace awareness is one of the key elements of a new functional area highlighted in our updated strategy—all domain access—or the ability to work across multiple domains.

“We must be able to achieve access in any domain,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert. “That means altering how we plan and coordinate actions in the air, sea, land, space and cyberspace domains, identifying and leveraging the right capability mix to assure access and freedom and action.”

To meet these objectives, we need to work toward greater collaboration and cooperation between platforms, sensors, weapons and systems.

Payloads over platforms

For years, we focused primarily on platforms and modified the sensors to fit within the design space and weight available. This led to varying levels of compromise, often resulting in decreased capability of those sensors. While a platform is necessary to transport the payload to the desired location, the real value is in the product provided by the sensor or payload. With today’s rapidly changing threat environment, we need to ensure that we focus more on the payload and the sensor capability. (For more on sensors, see FLYING WATCH: Triton Promises ‘Persistent Picture’ of Maritime Environment).

The future force will operate forward, rapidly responding to changing threats with modular, scalable, netted sensors and payloads on a range of sea/shore-based manned and unmanned systems.

It’s all about knowledge for the warfighter

Our guiding principles for information dominance stress that every platform is a sensor and every sensor is networked. Yet as these principles guide our development of unmanned systems, we must also focus on the need to provide actionable information to the warfighters, so the data must be meaningful and accessible.

One of my priorities as PEO (U&W) is to seamlessly integrate our sensors so that they have a breadth of spectrum, which also allows them to operate with the fidelity necessary to provide critical information. Ideally we will net these sensors together, but we must also generate resilient sensors that can operate autonomously in denied environments. We need ISR sensors that have the ability to adapt to changing operational needs and environments, while being able to integrate and fuse data to generate knowledge.

Whether it be electro-optic (EO), radio frequency (RF) receivers or radar sensors, we need to develop a way to tie them together. Rather than trying to build single platforms for single mission sets, we’re looking to optimize common modular systems across the force to better enable timely adaptation as the data requirements change.

We must also recognize that the operating environment in Iraq and Afghanistan is very different than in the open ocean or littoral regions. But regardless of the location, we must ensure our systems are optimized for all environments.

Teaming up

By design, our UAS will complement the capabilities of our manned aircraft. Composite detachments will take advantage of an unmanned aircraft’s long endurance, at the same time leveraging resources from manned squadrons to increase the level of surveillance while reducing the footprint of deployed naval personnel.

We are already doing this today with the MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and the H-60 Seahawk. Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35 is the first detachment to operate both platforms. The Fire Scout complements the MH-60R by extending the range and endurance to enhance maritime domain awareness.

We will see this same manned-unmanned teaming concept with the Triton and P-8A Poseidon. Bringing the Triton into the Maritime Patrol Reconnaissance Force (MPRF) will provide a much broader capability than either system could provide independently.

Our transition to the MPRF as a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft demonstrates the Navy’s belief that unmanned systems enhance existing mission communities by extending their reach and persistence, while maintaining the flexibility and on-scene decision-making of manned aircraft.

Future force

We are truly on the leading edge of expanding the potential of unmanned systems. We recently demonstrated the capability to autonomously refuel an unmanned aircraft in-flight (see X-47B Passes Unmanned Refueling Test). This was a significant step forward for the Navy. If we can transfer and receive fuel mid-air, we will have the ability to increase the range and flexibility of future unmanned aircraft platforms, ultimately extending carrier power projection.

These next few years are going to be critical for us as we begin to deliver increasing numbers of UAS to the fleet.

Netting unmanned systems together-complementing the current manned capability, and integrating across all domains with other unmanned systems operating on or below the waters we must dominate-will provide commanders with a greater situational awareness of the battlespace than ever before.

Working together with our resource sponsors, the warfighter and the many agencies engaged in development and delivery of unmanned capability, we will ensure our naval forces are able to execute SECNAV’s strategy built on the principles of being “forward, engaged and ready.”




RDMLDarrah_webRear Adm. Mark Darrah received his commission through the Aviation Officer Candidate Program and was designated a naval flight officer in October 1983.

His operational fleet tours were with Electronic Attack Squadrons (VAQ) 137, 140, 136, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 Strike Operations, and as the commanding officer of VAQ-142. Under his leadership, VAQ-142 completed successful combat deployments to Southwest Asia supporting Operations Northern and Southern Watch and were awarded the Chief of Naval Operations Annual Safety “S” for 2001. During these tours, he accumulated more than 3,200 flight hours and 603 carrier landings.

Ashore, he was assigned to VAQ-129 as an instructor; aide to the commander, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command; Advanced Education Program at George Mason University; information operations planning officer/liaison to Joint Special Operations Command; Airborne Electronic Attack Systems and EA-6B Program Office (PMA-234) advanced systems integrated product team lead. After being designated as a member of the acquisition corps, he served as the first EA-18G deputy program manager when the office was established in January 2003.

During his tenure, the EA-18G program received the 2004 Association of Old Crow’s Integrated Product Team Award and 2004 OSD(AT&L) Packard Award Certificate of Achievement. He was also recognized with the 2004 Admiral Perry Award and 2004 Association of Old Crow’s Metropolitan Chapter Lifetime Achievement Award.

He subsequently served as commanding officer, Pacific Missile Range Facility, Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii; and as the F/A-18 and EA-18G program manager from July 2007 to July 2011. After selection to flag, he served as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter weapon systems program manager from July 2011 to October 2012.

In November 2012, he assumed the position as commander, Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division and the assistant commander for Research and Engineering, Naval Air Systems Command. Darrah has been awarded the Legion of Merit (three), Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal (four), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (four), Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal (three) and various other unit awards.