December 20, 2013  

Unmanned naval warfare: Retrospect & prospect

A QH-50 DASH anti-submarine drone on board the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner (DD-692) during a 1967 deployment to Vietnam. (USN)

By Lt. Cmdr. Benjamin Armstrong

As dawn rose on the warring fleets, the Chinese admiral who commanded the smaller force prepared his unmanned systems for combat. His enemy’s fleet was enormous, the ships towering over his own in size and numbers. The first day of battle had seen his striking forces easily batted away. But today the fight had shifted into shallow waters, hampering his opponents’ battleships and herding them into a vulnerable mass.

In the morning, the admiral unleashed hundreds of unmanned attackers, who descended in a swarm on the enemy. Unable to engage them without shooting at one another and unable to maneuver to avoid them, the enemy’s force began to take losses. The admiral pressed the attack, and after four days of hard-fought maritime combat, prevailed. It was September 1361, and Zhu Yuanzhang’s fire-ships at the Battle of Lake Poyang had set him on course to become the first emperor of China’s Ming Dynasty.

Too much of today’s writing assumes that unmanned craft are a new phenomenon, and that today’s versions will force a true revolution in strategy or naval culture. Alfred Thayer Mahan struck closer to the truth: “The study of military history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practices.” And if we can learn from a 14th-century river pirate fighting for the Mandate of Heaven, we can certainly learn from a program much closer to our own time and technology.

In January 1960, the world’s first unmanned helicopter took flight at NAS Patuxent River. Designed by the Navy and a technical team from Gyrodyne Rotorcraft to carry anti-sub torpedoes, the aircraft made its first unmanned landing at sea later that year aboard the USS Hazelwood. In November 1962, a variant dubbed the QH-50 launched from San Clemente Island, Calif., landed aboard the USS Buck, and sailed onward to its first deployment.

Over the next eight years, the program would field some 750 aircraft and rack up hundreds of operational flights. Its successes and failures are a rich source of lessons for our unmanned future.


The QH-50 program began under Adm. Arleigh Burke, then in his third term as the Chief of Naval Operations. In the late 1950s, the Navy expected to detect enemy submarines much farther away than their torpedoes could hit them. The service began pursuing two methods of closing that gap: a missile called ASROC (Anti-Submarine Rocket), and a remotely controlled aircraft called DASH (Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter).

The airframe, of aviation tubing, bore a turboshaft engine that drove 365 shaft horsepower to a 20-foot coaxial rotor, allowing the half-ton aircraft to carry two Mark 44 torpedoes or a single nuclear depth charge. Its effective range, about 30 nautical miles, was conscribed by the radar range of their destroyers.[4]

During takeoff and landing, the DASH was flown by the destroyer’s “DASH Officer” at a flight-deck console; in mid-flight, control was passed to the combat information center (CIC). Operations and maintenance alike were performed by ship’s company, no aviation personnel involved.

Designed to be built inexpensively and in large numbers, the DASH lacked redundant systems. A single broken part, combined with a poorly organized and managed parts and logistics system, usually put an aircraft in the water or at least down for the deployment. Deployed units, afraid of losing their ability to attack submarines at range, rarely flew their aircraft. This, in turn, kept proficiency low and accident rates up: about half of the 750 QH-50s were eventually lost in mishaps.

Operationally, the results were varied. Some ships, like the destroyer USS Auli, made hundreds of successful launches and recoveries. The USS Larson, by contrast, lost control of its DASH, which crashed in Sagami, Japan, and started a brush fire.

The QH-50’s ability to hit faraway subs was actually quite good, at least in exercises. But surface forces in the 1960s frequently struggled to localize subsurface targets well enough to launch the weapons. DASH was blamed, even though it was a targeting problem instead of an engagement problem. The program was cancelled in 1970, and resources redirected to the ASROC.


What lessons does the QH-50 hold for us? We can start with two after-action documents from 1970: a GAO report on the DASH program and a letter, “Status of QH-50 Drone Helicopter,” from then-Lt. Cmdr. Ira Anderson to the Chief of Naval Operations.

The 55-page GAO report says many of the QR-50’s problems resulted from the Navy’s decision to rush the aircraft into service to match the rate at which destroyers could be modified to operate them. The report also suggests that the Navy changed its expectations of the aircraft after it was operational, and did not properly account for the differences in loss rates in test and evaluation and fleet training (which would be expected to be higher) versus operational flying (expected to be lower). Both of these factors made the QR-50’s performance appear poor, even though the aircraft, once in operation, delivered far more flight hours between failures than the acquisition contract required.

The report’s appendix includes letters from the Navy and from Gyrodyne that discuss further elements of the DASH program. Gyrodyne highlighted differences in training and proficiency of the crews that operated the system to show that the system was successful when in the right hands. As an example, it cites USS Steinaker, which flew 344 DASH missions over 16 months, including in severe winds and sea conditions, without a mishap. It quotes the ship’s CO: “the success of our system hinges on its continual utilization…proficiency of our DASH personnel [was] proportional to the number of hours of operation.”

LCDR Anderson’s letter to the CNO, which focuses on operational elements of the DASH program , takes a different tack than the GAO report. Instead of looking at the aircraft and hardware, Anderson focused on the failures of the organization through which the Navy supported DASH. He noted, for example, that officer and enlisted billets associated with DASH experienced rapid turnover. Soon after a sailor had completed the time-consuming, expensive training and gained a bit of operational experience, he would get new orders and move on. Anderson also pointed out that while there was plenty of talk about saving money and time by using “training devices” or simulators, almost all of the training was done on actual aircraft, increasing costs and raising the mishap rate.

Anderson also said the DASH program was poorly organized. Begun in the design and R&D offices of naval aviation, acquired with surface fleet money, and manned by non-specialized surface fleet personnel, the program muddled on with no real ownership and certainly few advocates inside either aviation or surface warfare. Leaders had very little understanding of the aircraft’s capabilities in the fleet, so the systems were used infrequently and with very little tactical or operational innovation. The lack of ownership also resulted in a poor logistics system because neither aviation nor surface felt responsibility for providing parts or replacement aircraft to the fleet.

Decide & Act

This history points us to principles and ideas that can guide our own implementation and tactical development of unmanned systems. First, we must carefully construct the administrative and organizational structures that support such programs. Second, we must accept that new systems and innovative technologies will bring mission creep, expanding requirements, and even cost increases. Finally, we must better define “unmanned,” because just like the drones of 50 years ago, today’s systems require human interaction and direction.

The hybrid system of administration and responsibility for the DASH program, shared between aviation and surface warfare, set the program up for its early demise. When Congress began asking questions, it was easy to jettison the program, not because it was ineffective or too costly but because nobody in Navy leadership understood the potential of the aircraft or had a vested interest in its success. DASH taught us that successful unmanned programs must have clear ownership and an advocate at the senior levels of the naval bureaucracy. This bodes ill for, say, the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program, whose ownership is divided between N2/N6 and the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). It’s unclear whether this split ownership caused the recent waffling in UCLASS  requirements and the shift away from strike missions to ISR, as documented at USNI News, but it’s a possibility.

DASH was designed for one purpose: to drop torpedoes 30 miles from a ship. But when the fleet gets hold of innovative technology, sailors find new ways to use it. Off the coast of Vietnam, a handful of destroyer crews began flying their DASH aircraft to scout shorelines and spot targets for naval gunfire. Rigged with rudimentary television systems and telemetry sets to provide data back to the ship, the aircraft live-streamed video from 30 to 50 miles out. This greatly improved gunnery accuracy. Inspired by these “DASH SNOOPYs” researchers at defense labs began toying with other ideas, including night optics and even air-to-surface weapons.

However, the Navy pursued none of these innovations. The DASH program had no way to capture or develop these new ideas, and no interest in improving the aircraft. In the GAO report, and also in Congressional testimony, the Navy and Congress focused 100% on dropping torpedoes and time between failures, and wanted to hear nothing about increasing capabilities. Because the program lacked an advocate, senior leadership likely neither knew nor cared about such advances. Today’s unmanned systems cannot be allowed to have the same fate. Strict adherence to requirements and a system that doesn’t encourage spiral development and improvement will reduce the potential for finding creative new ways of executing maritime missions.

Finally, a word about “unmanned.” Both Anderson and Gyrodyne emphasized the fundamental quality of an unmanned system: there is no risk to human life. The lieutenant commander noted that as of fall 1970, more than 4,000 manned helicopters had been lost in Vietnam, each likely with a number of wounded and killed. Gyrodyne noted that not a single human was injured, let alone killed, when operational mishaps destroyed more than 300 DASHes.

However, neither the DASH nor today’s systems are truly unmanned. Though they fly without a pilot or crew aboard, sailors and Marines control their missions, complete the maintenance needed to keep them operating, and develop the innovative tactics, techniques, and procedures needed for these technologies to advance naval operations into the future. As Col. John Boyd put it, we must focus on “people, ideas, and hardware…in that order.” The human domain is a fundamental part of warfare on and from the sea and will remain the lynchpin of success or failure in unmanned systems.

For all the talk about radical, revolutionary, or fundamental changes that unmanned systems may wreak on naval warfare and strategy, it is more important to remember our history. Whether the fire-ships of pre-modern naval history or previous remotely operated aircraft, unmanned technology’s impact on naval culture has been more evolutionary than revolutionary.  On, above, or below the sea, this trend is likely to continue into the future.

BJ Armstrong is a naval aviator and a research student with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He is studying maritime security operations and naval irregular warfare in the Age of Sail. He is a member of the U.S. Naval Institute and his book, 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era, was released in June 2013. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.