Navy Doubles Robot Patrols Near Iran

As tensions rise, Global Hawk spy drone to begin flying more often

Navy Doubles Robot Patrols Near Iran Navy Doubles Robot Patrols Near Iran

Uncategorized September 7, 2013 0

BAMS-D. Navy photo Navy Doubles Robot Patrols Near Iran As tensions rise, Global Hawk spy drone to begin flying more often The U.S. Navy... Navy Doubles Robot Patrols Near Iran
BAMS-D. Navy photo

Navy Doubles Robot Patrols Near Iran

As tensions rise, Global Hawk spy drone to begin flying more often

The U.S. Navy is getting ready to almost double the rate at which its giant spy drone flies over the Strait of Hormuz near Iran. On Sept. 6, the sailing branch quietly announced a $10-million contract award that would allow the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Demonstration robot—a version of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk—to fly 15 missions a month, up from nine.

It’s not hard to see why the Navy is willing to spend $10 million boosting the BAMS-D’s flying pace. The war in Syria is growing bloodier by the day. Believing Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad has used chemical weapons against civilians and rebels, the administration of U.S. Pres. Barack Obama is seeking Congressional endorsement of air and missile strikes on Damascus.

Amid rising tensions, Iran—Syria’s major backer—has ramped up naval patrols in the Persian Gulf. Tehran added an overhauled destroyer to the fleet in September.

The Strait of Hormuz is the Gulf’s entrance and major bottleneck, just 21 miles wide at its narrowest. For years the Navy has kept one—at least one source says two—of its four BAMS-D drones at Al Dhafra, a sprawling air base in the United Arab Emirates that is a major hub for U.S. spy planes in the Middle East. The Navy’s manned P-3 patrol aircraft also fly over the Persian Gulf.

A drone orbits overhead every time an American warship approaches the Strait of Hormuz. “We use it on every Strait transit,” said Adm. Jon Greenert, the chief of naval operations. “The theater commander loves it.”

With roughly the same wingspan as a 737 airliner, the BAMS-D and other Global Hawk-type drones can fly higher than 60,000, peering down with radars, cameras and other sensors. An efficient wing and engine mean a BAMS-D can stay aloft for at least 30 hours at a time before needing to land for refueling. A pair of the drones could, in theory, watch over the Persian Gulf around the clock, beaming intelligence imagery to ships and ground stations in near real-time.

But the Navy had paid Northrop, which operates the ‘bots, for only nine missions a month, or roughly one flight every three days.

That will change beginning in May 2014, according to the Sept. 6 contract award. “The services include manpower to increase BAMS-D operational tempo from the current nine maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions per month to a sustained level of 15 missions per month,” the military stated. That’s roughly 450 hours of surveillance for every 720-hour period.

And that’s just the beginning for the Navy’s all-seeing eyes in the sky. BAMS-D is technically a demonstrator aircraft—a sort of test model. Northrop is building around 70 bigger and more powerful drones called Tritons that improve on the BAMS-Ds in many ways. Where BAMS-D can point its radar at just a narrow arc and backs up that sensor with a camera, Triton can scan 360 degrees simultaneously and adds electronic eavesdroppers to its camera and radar suite.

Today there is probably just one BAMS-D at Al Dhafra. By 2015 there will be three Tritons at Al Dhafra and also Italy, with more on the way, finally allowing round-the-clock aerial spying on Iranian waters.