Thursday, July 30, 2020

Battleship UAVs

We tend to think of UAVs as new technology.  The Navy has visions of UAVs cruising out to leisurely circle over enemy forces and report targeting data back to undetected ships that will launch missiles to rain down on the hapless enemy.  Indeed, this is the heart of the distributed lethality concept. 

Setting aside the immense degree of fantasy, wishful thinking in that concept, it is interesting to recall that unmanned spotter aircraft are not all that new.  Just as the Navy used DASH drones for ASW decades ago, so too US Navy battleships (remember those?) used UAVs for gunfire spotting from the mid-1980’s through the mid-2000’s.  Of course, at that time the UAVs were referred to as Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPV).  The RPV of choice was the RQ-2 Pioneer.

RQ-2 Pioneer

As a reminder, the RQ-2 Pioneer was a mid-size, unmanned aircraft that was launched via rocket assist or a small catapult from the ship’s fantail and recovered using a net system.  It had an autopilot, inertial navigation, and 2-way C-band line-of-sight data link with a range limit of 100 nm.(4)  A common payload was the Wescam DS-12 EO/IR (Electro-Optical/Infrared) sensor. 

Battleship and RPV - A Lethal Combination

When not in use on the battleships, RPVs were disassembled and stored in steel ‘blast boxes’ aft of the Number 3 turret.(8)  The boxes were required to protect the units from the extreme over-pressure of the 16” guns.

Here are some specs on the Pioneer.

RQ-2 Pioneer UAV Specs (2)
Number built
1986 – 2007
5 hr
100 nm
75 lb
14 ft long x 17 ft wingspan
15,000 ft
110 kts

The USS Iowa became the test bed for the RQ-2 Pioneer in December 1986.  Iowa experimented with RQ-2 Pioneer RPVs in 1987 exercises (Display Determination ’87) with Turkey and managed to surreptitiously launched an RPV in spite of Turkey’s objections to provide spotting support for a subsequent live fire event.(3)

RPV Launch

The Marines obtained Pioneer aircraft in 1987 and operated them from LHA amphibious ships as reconnaissance assets.  Reportedly, 5 Austin class LPDs were also equipped to operate Pioneers.(4)

Wisconsin and Missouri used their Pioneer RPVs to provide reconnaissance during the 1991 Desert Storm conflict and participated in the amphibious feint directed at the east coast of Kuwait.

After Missouri’s initial sustained shelling of the [Faylaka] island, Wisconsin sent its Pioneer buzzing over Iraqi heads in preparation for another barrage, during which Iraqi soldiers could be seen looking up blindly into the air waving makeshift white flags signaling their surrender.

It would be the first time an enemy surrendered to an unmanned vehicle and a testament as to how brutally powerful the Battleships’ main battery were, even in the modern era of so called “smart warfare.” (1)

During Wisconsin’s eight months in the Persian Gulf in support of Desert Storm, she accumulated 348 RPV flight hours.(1)  Including land based Marine units, Pioneers flew 533 sorties during Desert Storm.(5)  Another report states that 30 Pioneers flew 858 combat sorties (2781 hrs).(6)

RPV In Recovery Net

In 1998, Pioneer  accumulated more than 300 at-sea flight hours and was continuously deployed with cruises on USS Shreveport; USS Denver; USS Austin; and USS Cleveland.(7)

While the Pioneer RPVs were quite successful, the main takeaway from the Navy’s RPV experience is the operating environment and, unfortunately, this lesson has not been recognized.

Permissive Environment – It must be noted that the battleship’s RPVs were used in permissive environments without aerial or surface-to-air threats.  Thus, the RPVs were able to leisurely hover over the target areas.  This is the model the Navy seems to believe in today.  The Navy makes absolutely no allowance for enemy resistance.  Would we allow UAVs to leisurely circle over our forces, sending back spotting information?  Of course not!  So, why would the enemy allow us to do that?  They won’t!  Why then, are we so sure that slow, non-stealthy UAVs will be the backbone of our battlefield surveillance efforts?  It makes no sense.

We’ve seen that the Saudis and Israel and even Iran routinely shoot down UAVs.  Why do we think our UAVs will survive over a Chinese force?  They won’t!  In fact, our UAV lifespans will likely be measured in seconds or, on a good day, minutes.

Summary – So, what does all this tell us?  It tells us that unmanned spotter – or, more generally, surveillance – UAVs can be a very powerful tool but not as we plan to use them.  Loss rates under current planning will be near 100% and effectiveness, in terms of surveillance, will be near zero.  The successful counter to this is numbers and, to a lesser degree, stealth.  If we flood an area with more UAVs than the enemy can shoot down we’ll accomplish our surveillance objectives.  To do this requires cheap, expendable UAVs that can be thrown into battle in large numbers combined with a very robust master data assembly program that can put together the fragmentary bits of data that are received before each UAV dies.  The concept is described in this post: “PieceIt Together”.  Here’s a closely related post: “The Next Cruiser and Mini-Hawks”.  And:  “UAVs – Numbers Matter”.

This discussion should also suggest the need for a UAV carrier capable of operating hundreds of small UAVs and managing their communications and data.

An excellent exercise would be for the Navy to send their chosen UAVs to monitor an Army unit tasked with destroying the UAVs – a true live fire exercise.  Add in our best efforts at disrupting the UAV communications and we’d have an exercise that would tell us much about our UAV capabilities and our counter-UAV capabilities.

The Navy needs to get serious about determining the survivability and effectiveness of UAVs in a peer combat scenario before we commit them to war.  UAVs are the foundation of so many of our plans and yet we have no evidence to suggest that they are survivable or effective in combat.  In fact, operational experience strongly demonstrates that they are neither survivable nor effective.


(1)“Battleships Pulled Off The Biggest Ruse Of Operation Desert Storm 25 Years Ago”, Tyler Rogoway, 20-Jan-2016,


  1. Maybe unmanned aerial loitering systems are what we should be using on ships. The IDF already does. UVision has a whole family of loitering drones, the Hero family. All of them are tube launched from small Hero 20 to the large Hero 1250 (250km range, 30 kg warhead, 7hr loiter). you could pack a bunch into something like the old ASROC launcher. Would be a lot cheaper than operating Helicopters and take up less space.At the end of the mission it can attack the target or if no target, self destruct. They would be considered munitions rounds, just like all the other ammo on board.

  2. I always thought a drone made on the type of air frame of the would be a great carrier drone aircraft. very fast top speed, long range damned strong, insanely short take off and landing. Something like that for a modern heavy gun cruiser or BB would be awesome. Or really for anyone.

  3. @James

    I always thought the demise of the flying pancake was premature...

  4. "An excellent exercise would be for the Navy to send their chosen UAVs to monitor an Army unit tasked with destroying the UAVs – a true live fire exercise. Add in our best efforts at disrupting the UAV communications and we’d have an exercise that would tell us much about our UAV capabilities and our counter-UAV capabilities."

    Exactly the kind of thing we need to be doing. Find out if these things work or not.

    We need more realistic training across the board.

    Of course, the problem is that there are a whole lot of careers invested in a lot of these gadgets, and if they don't work then a lot of those careers go down the drain. Better careers now, than lives later when it counts for real.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Its still really good to read the posts and the ensuing discussions. ComNavOps could be 7 year old kid posting from the family computer when his mum gives him time for all i care.

  6. The problem with USN is they learned the wrong lessons during GW1: USN thinks the Iraqis surrendered to an UAV when in reality, Iraqis were getting pulverized by 16 inches rounds and said no mas....its not the same thing!

    1. Yes, the UAV was simply the first thing they saw that they could surrender to.

    2. I completely agree that they buried the lead with the surrender. It was the power of the shelling that convinced the troops not to fight. The UAV could have been a 9 year old on a bicycle with a phone to HQ and the result would have been the same.

      While the story of surrendering to a UAV is compelling, how did it actually happen? Was The UAV able to secure the event weapons and process the prisoners? Was it able to gain useful intelligence from the captives? There is no replacement for actual presence on the battlefield. Unmammed assets can provide useful information on the battlefield situation and deliver weapons to have some effect, but they are limited compared with actual soldiers or sailors. Even if this was an unmanned tank, the result would be the same - enemy troops acting for the camera, but no was for the robot to peacefully resolve the situation. Robots are useful but humans are irreplaceable in terms of flexibility of programming.

  7. I think small, relatively cheap, unmanned systems may be useful for intel, recon, and surveillance. But trying to replace ships with larger unmanned systems is lunacy.

    And if you're going to use them for intel, recon, and surveillance, you better have a bunch of them because your expected loss rate is going to be high, and they'd better be cheap because you're going to go through a lot of them.

    The Navy needs to buck up and realize that they're not going to be able to get along without sailors any time soon, and any harebrained notion that they can utilize unmanned vehicles to eliminate the need for humans is nuts. Use them to complement humans, and have backups available if and when they fail.

    1. CDR: Exactly what I've been trying to post for the past 2 hours but crazy work right now!

      FINALLY some down time. My post:

      During Cold War, US forces were sharp and focused, I can see why they felt an UAV wasn't needed, what did it provide the numerous manned recon assets we operated then couldn't? The capability wasn't that much better,maybe little more persistence but thats about it and USN realized UAVs wouldn't last long vs Soviets.

      Today, we dont have any manned capability left so we need UAVs which is OK if we bought them, operated them and understood the consequences correctly, which we haven't!!!

      We need to buy cheap, plentiful and rapidly produced UAVs, we need to understand the strength and weaknesses and train in accordance and even sometimes, blasphemy, operate with out them!!! Today, US forces buy just a few UAVS, operate them 24-7, almost no shoot downs and think we can afford the losses. Plus, we have now a military that has forgotten one of the most important lessons: war is full of fog and darkness and we think we have magically removed it. Our forces have become way to used to having an all seeing eye in the sky and the reality check will be brutal.

      What we need to practice is a few minutes to a few seconds! of coverage then operate for a FEW HOURS without coverage, maybe even go a day with no coverage, then again a rapid glimpse and go back to no coverage....same really goes to GPS and communications, maybe in the future, would even apply to AI, get a quick run down, data dump, some instructions or guidelines from the CO-AI assistant and go back to complete black out from all EM emissions/receptions. That's far more possible and what would happen in a real war against China. Thats reality.

  8. I think the navy needs to invest in making the UAVs themselves. Fit ships with 3D printers for the bodies - even engines can now be printed for very small UAVs and this technology will improve. All you'd need would be the sensor packages and chunks of that can be printed too. That's the route to mass, cheap drone swarms.

    1. Mass, cheap, locally produced drones would have to be very small, very limited in flight range, very limited in sensor range, and have very small payloads. What combat use do you see for such a drone?

      For an infantryman, it would be useful to look over the next hill or behind the next building. For a ship that can already see 15 miles to the horizon with its own radar, what does a very small UAV gain the ship?

      Not saying it's a bad idea but the idea needs to be carefully thought through to make sure it's combat-useful.

    2. Didn't USMC had a similar program already? Haven't much since they tried it after years back, ill have to google it up....i guess it sounds like a good idea but is it really that practical and better than just outright buying them already made?

    3. For a repair capability, I see the benefits of printing small parts that may be difficult to stock on board and that may break often. But for the initial platform, I don't see the advantage in waiting to produce the asset during a mission, versus having it already available.

  9. Recently, a suspected Chinese Navy bid document published online showing China's proposed new type 076 amphibious assault ship. It has two electrical magnetic eject systems mainly for launch drones. It could become first drone carrier (if no maned helicopter).

    Its GJ-11 displayed during last October's military parade is the first stealthy attacking drone entered military service in the world (not in development but in service).

    This idea could bridge a problem of supporting marine because China has no F-35B.


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