By Marty Graham
CORONADO, California (Reuters) - The U.S. Navy introduced its first squadron that combines combat helicopters with unmanned aerial vehicles at an air base near San Diego on Thursday, calling the approach the future of warfare.
The squadron of about 140 sailors, called the Magicians, will work off coastal combat ships that are smaller and faster than destroyers and aircraft carriers.
"We've been using multimillion dollar destroyers to chase Somali pirates," Admiral David Buss said. "This approach is designed for near-shore environment where our current experience shows us we're most likely to encounter threats."
The new approach combines MH-60 Romeo helicopters the Navy currently uses with the MQ-8 Fire Scout, a Northrop Grumman-built drone that looks and launches like a helicopter.
Where the helicopters are designed and built for antisubmarine and surface warfare, as well as search and rescue, the Fire Scout will be equipped and used for surveillance, target acquisition and relaying information to its controllers, at least for now.
The unmanned aircraft is controlled by two "pilots" on the ground or on a ship up to 110 miles away. It can stay in the air for at least eight hours, compared to the helicopter's maximum air time of 3.3 hours.
The Navy has been testing the Fire Scout since 2007 and deploying it since 2009, using it for counter-narcotics operations and in Afghanistan. In 2012, two of the drones crashed in separate incidents, and the Navy briefly grounded its Fire Scout fleet. Another was shot down over Libya in 2012.
The strengths of the Fire Scout lie in how long it can monitor situations, Buss told a news conference.
"Helicopters can't stay airborne as long as the Fire Scout," he said. "With the Fire Scout's endurance of up to eight hours, the helicopter crew can return refuel, rearm and re-man while the Fire Scout maintains contact."
Buss acknowledged that the Navy doesn't have a playbook for how to mix manned and unmanned flying warfare.
"The ink has not dried on any set of criteria yet," he said. "As with any new systems and any new technology, we work through the bugs from early on."
Northrop Grumman is looking forward to seeing how the Navy actually uses the Fire Scout and already has an upgraded version in the pipeline, according to Jim Zortman, sector vice president of global logistics and operational support.
"We put it in the hands of these smart, young sailors and they figure out ways to operate it that we never thought of," Zortman said. "They take some little thing we barely noticed and do something amazing with it while something we paid a lot of attention to, they'll barely notice or use at all."
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)