An MQ-9 Drone Is Teaming Up with a Navy Warship to Obliterate Targets at Sea

MQ-9 Sea Guardian unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft system flies over the Pacific Ocean
An MQ-9 Sea Guardian unmanned maritime surveillance aircraft system flies over the Pacific Ocean during U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Unmanned Systems Integrated Battle Problem (UxS IBP) 21, April 21, 2021. (Shannon Renfroe/U.S. Navy)

The U.S. Navy is pairing an MQ-9B Sea Guardian drone with a guided-missile cruiser capable of firing anti-air, anti-surface and anti-submarine missiles as a hunter-killer team in an unprecedented exercise testing new unmanned systems.

The medium-altitude drone is finding targets for the Cruiser Princeton to destroy during the Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21 exercise happening off the coast of San Diego this week.

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"Using sonobuoys and other assets, the Sea Guardian identified contacts and reported locations remotely to the commander on board the cruiser," a Wednesday Navy news release announcing the test states. The ship is set to fire on the targets later in the exercise.

"The integration between unmanned and manned capabilities shown today provides an operations approach to strengthening our manned unmanned teaming," Rear Adm. James Aiken, tactical commander of the unmanned exercise, said in the release. "Putting our newest technology into our Sailors' hands directly enhances our fleet."

Aiken told reporters the goal is to conduct live-fire tests in which unmanned and manned systems work together during the demonstration.

"What we're gonna do is ... we're going to put a missile on a target," Aiken said during a roundtable discussion ahead of Wednesday's test. The commander said it would "be an offensive missile, and we're going to strike a target ... well beyond line of sight," referring to relaying signals or communications beyond transmittable range.

The sea services' push for funding to test and field unmanned technology -- particularly drone surface vessels -- has faced significant resistance from Congress.

When the Navy asked for $2 billion to build 10 large unmanned surface vessels over the next five years, lawmakers effectively blocked the service from buying any of the ships in 2021 by requiring "a certification regarding technology maturity" before any dollars could be spent.

Aiken said he is aware of resistance from Capitol Hill, but added the drone-to-ship communication concept will give the future Navy "a warfighting advantage."

The Navy is using seven unmanned technologies, including the Sea Guardian; the MQ-8B Fire Scout; the Vanilla ultra-long endurance, mid-sized drone; underwater and surface autonomous vehicles; and assets from the Naval research lab's "super swarm" project.

Ten ships are taking part in the exercise, including the Princeton, five guided-missile destroyers, one submarine and two littoral combat ships. The service is also using five manned aircraft, including the EA-18 Growler and P-8 Poseidon.

Aiken said various systems will be teamed up in three different exercise scenarios, but declined to explain the roles of each of the Navy's assets. The commander did not say exactly how many of each drone type are participating in the exercise.

The Army and Air Force are conducting similar experiments linking weapons and capabilities for better centralized oversight and control.

-- Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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