Navy and Marine Corp commanders fresh off a deployment in the Middle East said their Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit were equipped to take on missions including embassy evacuations from Yemen and joint operations with special operators. However, there was one piece of equipment they wanted but didn’t have: an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance asset such as a drone.
“Organic ISR would have been extremely helpful during this last deployment. We did not have access to that,” Navy Capt. Mike McMillan, commodore of Amphibious Squadron 8, said Thursday during a briefing at the Potomac Institute.
Amphibious Squadron 8—an amphibious ready group (ARG) comprising the ships USS Iwo Jima (LHD-7), USS New York (LPD-21) and USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43)—and the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) wrapped up a seven-month deployment this July.
During operations in Central Command, the ARG split up, but at least one ship was kept in the waters surrounding Yemen to support U.S. embassy evacuations if needed, said Marine Col. Scott Benedict, commander of the 24th MEU.
It would have been helpful to have had an unmanned aerial system (UAS) deployed on one of the ships during that time, McMillan said. As the political situation in Yemen worsened, an influx of surface combatants sailed into the Gulf of Aden and the southern Red Sea. While the Navy can use the Automatic Identification System to track merchant vessels, it is more difficult to identify and keep an eye on military ships.
A drone “would have significantly enhanced our ability to maintain a common operational picture,” he said.
Up to about 2012, the Iwo Jima ARG was equipped with the Boeing-Insitu [BA] ScanEagle. The Navy also plans to field a follow-on system, the RQ-21A Blackjack also produced by Boeing-Insitu, on LPD-class ships.
That capability might be better served on the less-capable LSD-class, which would benefit greatly by gaining an ISR asset, McMillan said. “New York already is extremely capable. It has a very robust C2 (command and control) suite as well as organic aircraft.”
Additionally, with as many as four aircraft taking off and landing on the deck of the New York, there was little space available for a small UAS, he said. Putting a drone on the Fort McHenry would have been easier because “I have an open flight deck over on the LSD, and I don’t have to de-conflict.”
McMillan noted that perhaps the LSD lacks the bandwidth and command-and-control capability needed to support the Blackjack. However, he believes the LX(R)—the amphibious ship that will replace the LSD class—should be developed so that it can support drone operations.
“We feel strongly that that needs to have as much capability as possible. We can’t afford any longer to have ships like the LSD which do not have good connectivity, collections capability and organic ISR,” he said. “I think that’s something we should work toward advocating for.”
Both he and Benedict have shared their views during debriefings with Pentagon and service leaders, he added.
Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.