Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Navy is using its first high-altitude drone, part of a potential $11 billion program, to monitor Iranian military activity and vessel transit in and around the Strait of Hormuz, according to service officials.
The unmanned aerial vehicle built by Northrop Grumman Corp. is providing broad coverage of the strategic waterway from 60,000 feet, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert said yesterday in an interview.
Black-and-white still images from the drone, known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAV, are beamed to a ground station in Maryland and re-transmitted to 5th Fleet naval vessels in the region within minutes on average, Program Manager Captain Jim Hoke said.
The drone operation, a 24-hour mission every three days, complements the 12-hour sorties flown by manned P-3 aircraft, with the potential to alert the P-3 to focus on specific targets, according to the officials. The drone been used in the region since 2009.
“You get a look at the entire Hormuz swath,” Greenert said. While the BAMS drone currently provides still images, the Navy’s goal is “to get full mission video,” Greenert said in Washington. When airborne, it can survey about half the Gulf, officials said.
The drone’s use demonstrates the importance of unmanned aircraft in the Pentagon’s strategy unveiled last week. The Navy by 2019 wants to base a BAMS drone in five locations, including in the Pacific region, for worldwide coverage.
“It’s got persistence, it’s got nice resolution and clarity,” Greenert said. “It’s durable and operating very reliably.”
The head of Iran’s army warned the U.S. against sending an aircraft carrier back through the Strait into the Persian Gulf, the state-run Fars news agency said Jan. 3. A week earlier, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi was quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency as saying that his nation would block oil shipments through the Strait if economic sanctions are imposed to pressure Iran to abandon it nuclear program.
Iran has the ability to block the Strait “for a period of time” and the U.S. would take action to reopen it, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey said in an interview broadcast January 8 on the CBS “Face the Nation” program.
The BAMS UAV is the leading edge of what Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman anticipates will be an $11 billion program to produce 70 aircraft. Five demonstration models, such as the one in the Gulf, are on contract.
The Navy plane is part of an international task force that includes aircraft of the U.S. 5th Fleet, which is based in Bahrain.
The drone was first deployed to the Gulf in 2009 on a six- month stint to demonstrate the technology. Navy officials in 2010 extended the deployment a year at the request of the 5th Fleet in Bahrain. The Navy late last year “indefinitely” extended the drone’s Gulf region deployment, said service spokeswoman Jamie Cosgrove.
Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates pressed the military to make greater use of drones. The Pentagon’s current aviation plan calls for increasing by 2020 the number of high-altitude drones to more than 800 from the 220 today, most operated by the Air Force.
The Strait, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, is a chokepoint for seaborne oil trade, according to the U.S. Energy Department. Almost 17 million barrels a day, or about a fifth of oil traded globally, crossed the waterway last year, the department said in a report Dec. 30.
Northrop Grumman in 2008 beat Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Maryland, for a $1.8 billion contract to develop and build the first two demonstration aircraft in the Navy program. Northrop will also build three more advanced models under contract.
The Navy will seek Pentagon permission in 2013 to begin building the remaining 65 aircraft, Hoke said.
“The current plan is that Northrop Grumman would be the prime” contractor throughout the program, Hoke said in a telephone interview.
Northrop Grumman spokesman Randy Belote referred all questions to the Navy.
BAMS imagery is beamed via satellite to a ground processing station at the Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River Naval Station, Maryland. The black and white images are re-transmitted within minutes to the Gulf and can be accessed with computers by 5th Fleet vessels equipped with the Pentagon’s secure SIPRNET Internet, said Hoke.
“They’ve got it down to minutes from the time something is imaged and customers are ready to look at it -- anybody with a SIPRNET terminal would be able to look at product,” he said. The 5th Fleet watch office is also sending out the BAMS images to Navy vessels, he said.
--Editors: Terry Atlas, Larry Liebert
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