Waiving the rules… New strategies for integration of unmanned aerial vehicles with naval assets.


New strategies for integration of unmanned aerial vehicles with naval assets, discussed by UMS SKELDAR’s Head of Training and former RAF officer Ewen Stockbridge Sime.

Since the birth on naval warfare the ships with the capability to understand the maritime space have prevailed.  Be that to evade an adversary or to position to attack.  This has led many maritime tacticians to try and expand their Maritime Domain Awareness or MDA.

MDA is not a new concept nor is it complex.  As early as 2005, the US DoD (Department of Defense) released the National Plan To Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness in which it defined the requirement for MDA and their road map for success.  The National Plan was driven by a statement three years before by President Bush, when he said,

“The heart of the Maritime Domain Awareness program is accurate information, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance of all vessels, cargo, and people extending well beyond our traditional maritime boundaries.”


The planners responded by stating that it will be achieved by improving our ability to collect, fuse, analyse, display, and disseminate actionable information and intelligence to operational commanders.

The world has changed since 2005 but the desire for MDA is ever more pressing now more than ever as the ‘blue borders’ (i.e. the maritime domain where oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface) become the 21st century mission space.  We need to understand migration and we need to be able to respond to humanitarian issues; we need to understand how the rising sea level is affecting littoral areas and we need to address the polluted rivers and how they affect the ocean.  The demand on the maritime space is as high now as ever and as we focus less on land conflicts and more on the maritime space, this trend will continue.


The maritime environment is dominated by the horizon.  Without high ground to occupy all ships have the same horizon therefore all ships have the same range limitations at which to detect and understand.  Driven by this level playing field, ships developed strategies to outmanoeuver their adversary or to outgun them in range or power.  Improved design of ships meant that sensors could be put on high masts, but this only marginally increased the ability to detect at range:  the horizon remained the limiting factor.  Then, with the advent on maritime aviation and the helicopter the ship could now extend the horizon by pushing the sensor higher and further from the fleet.  The result was an explosion of capability and a change in the way ships could manoeuvre and protect themselves.  The risk to capital ships, such as the aircraft carrier, was now managed and they could be put to sea in hostile environments.

However, the revolution in capability did not answer the full question.  Often the fleet did not own the air asset and were therefore reliant on other services or agencies.  If the fleet did own the assets and they were organic to the ships, they were limited to helicopters with their relatively short endurance: the ships could only extend their understanding for short periods of time.

In addition to the military requirement, there has been a growing awareness of the seas and our responsibility to them.  Pollution monitoring is becoming a hot agenda item and we have seen in recent months agencies such as EMSA (European Maritime Safety Agency) have looked to increase the monitoring of pollution in the maritime environment.  We have seen an increase in the interest of shoreline erosion or submersion and the monitoring of low lying countries is becoming critical if we are to predict problems.

Moreover, the maritime borders are again the front line in dealing with migration and humanitarian issues such as human trafficking.  In NATO these facts have been never so clear.  In the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, NATO strives to understand in order to protect its borders and support Member States.  Individual countries such as Spain and Italy have long strived to understand the waterspace in the Mediterranean to assist in humanitarian missions and to try and identify and arrest the traffickers.  Britain will be particularly interested in improving the MDA in the near future to monitor post Brexit Fishing Laws in national waters.  If you extend this to the global arena, the South China Sea, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf all are mission spaces in which decision makers strive to own the horizon.  When we view all of the issues, military, environmental or humanitarian, it all distils to a dependence on greater Maritime Domain Awareness: How we deal with these issues are our next challenge.

There are two sides to increasing MDA:  a greater ability to collect and a greater ability to understand the data that has been collected.  A greater ability to collect may be represented as the ability to see further or for longer, or it may be the ability to sense in different aspects of the EM (electro-magnetic) spectrum.  The greater ability to process this data and interpret and present intelligence to the decision maker. 

Unmanned Air Vehicles in the Maritime domain have been around for many years.  However, with the maturing technology for VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) systems, an UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) organic to a ship may now offer technical solutions to many of the issues outlined above.  Systems such as the heavy fuel rotary VTOL Skeldar V-200 are capable of flying extended missions and carry one or more sensors.  Improved lift capacity on this class of UAS has meant that, for the first time, maritime surface search radars can be carried and employed with effect.  High definition optics can be used to understand, identify and assist in missions varying from coast guard boarding parties to search and rescue to littoral survey.  Hyper spectral sensors can be used to detect pollution and the emergence of ViDAR (Visual Detection and Ranging) gives real opportunity for low weight, high resolution surface picture compilation at range.

Students of Air Power know that some of the defining characteristics are speed, reach and height.  These three cornerstones of air enable an aircraft to be reactive and quickly respond to new situations, it can exploit height and therefore extend the horizon and it can extend physical presence through reach.  The UAS has all of these attributes and can offer the benefits.

In the complex maritime environment, the UAS offers huge flexibility and reach.  Now, for the first time, small vessels can transport their own organic air capability.  Picket ships can extend understanding further, small survey ships can understand better and coastguards can find and help more effectively.   This may not represent a RMA, more like an evolution, but it does offer a step change in the way MDA is created and maintained.

UAS in the maritime domain offers solutions to the limited horizon by raising sensors in to the sky.  With an increase in horizon a maritime decision maker will have the ability to understand further and therefore have more time in which to make their decisions.  The UAS will be able to persist for greater periods than a traditional helicopter and due to the foot-print these systems have, a ship may be able to carry more than one system therefore increasing the ability to apply persistence.  Lastly, UASs are configured to integrate with most sensors therefore almost every aspect of the EM spectrum can be interrogated and exploited.  Previously invisible targets now become visible.

Persistence and range and the ability to sense throughout the EM spectrum will lead to a greater MDA and the UAS will be the workhorse that enables this.