The Pentagon is hoping a multimillion-dollar investment in new technology will enable drones on hundreds of Navy ships to provide air support to operations around the globe.
The goal of the “launch and recovery” system, as it has been dubbed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is to provide airborne surveillance and drone strikes from the decks of “forward-deployed small ships” without having to deploy aircraft carriers or large, fixed land bases.
The $93.1 million contract was awarded to defense contractor Northrop Grumman on December 24 as part of DARPA’s Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node program, which aims to enable drones to operate from smaller ships, according to a Pentagon press release.
Fixed-wing unmanned aircraft require bases and large aircraft carriers, which in turn require “substantial financial, diplomatic and security commitments,” DARPA noted. The U.S. Navy lists 10 conventional aircraft carriers in the U.S. fleet.
Drones have become critical to the military’s effort to combat terrorist activity globally and, in theory, this new technology would allow surveillance flights and drone strikes to be launched globally from the hundreds of existing “small-deck naval maritime vessels,” which include guided-missile destroyers and littoral combat ships, according to Northrup Grumman.
The new seaborne drone system would combine vertical takeoff and landing with the ability to fly long distances like fix-winged drones and provide “highly flexible, robust and affordable unmanned intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike capability,” said Ralph Starace, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems’ director of advanced design.
A prototype is scheduled for completion in November 2017, the Defense Department said. The project is being supported by the Office of Naval Research in addition to DARPA.