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US Navy sees larger unmanned aircraft fleet with expanded roles

The US Navy (USN) future air wing will include greater numbers of unmanned aircraft with expanded mission sets, Vice Admiral James Kilby, deputy chief of naval operations for Warfighting Requirements and Capabilities, told lawmakers on 18 March.

The USN can “get to 40% of the air wing unmanned”, Vice Adm Kilby testified during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.

Vice Adm Kilby made the projection in response to complaints about the USN’s plans for unmanned platforms. Specifically, US Representative Rob Wittman (R-Virginia), the subcommittee ranking member, called into question during the hearing the USN development of the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

“The navy needs to develop an unmanned, long-range, carrier-based, penetrating-strike capability,” Wittman noted. “Yet, this nascent UCLASS programme was usurped to field a far less capable MQ-25 tanking drone.”

In that case, Wittman said, the navy had failed to “start with the end in mind”.

Vice Adm Kilby defended the USN’s plan, saying the service was trying to properly introduce the UAV into the fleet “focusing on launching, landing, and moving around the deck and the hangar bay”.

While the Stingray would be used for tanker missions initially, Kilby said it would transition to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, with an eye towards unmanned electronic attack and strike missions.

This is part of navy’s crawl-walk-run mindset, he said.

Most committee members questioned the navy’s general mindset towards unmanned development, as outlined in the service’s Unmanned Campaign report released on 17 March.

US Representative Elaine Luria (D-Virginia), HASC vice chairman, said, “I was really disappointed with what I thought was a lack of substance.”

The report, she added, was full of “platitudes, but short on details”.

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