The Navy on Thursday inaugurated its first squadron with both manned and unmanned aircraft amid debate over the military's burgeoning use of drones in warfare.
Military officials launched the effort by reactivating the Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35, known as the "Magicians," which served for 19 years before being deactivated in 1992.
The new squadron "points to the future of naval aviation," Vice Admiral David H. Buss, commander of naval air forces, told the crowd attending the ceremony at Naval Air Station North Island on Coronado, near San Diego.
The squadron is expected to have eight manned helicopters and 10 of the Fire Scout MQ-8B, an unmanned helicopter that tracks targets and eventually will be armed, said Cmdr. Christopher S. Hewlett, who is the squadron's commanding officer.
The squadron will operate the Fire Scouts from the Navy's new littoral combat ships in the Pacific in about a year.
The new high-speed vessels, which can go into shallow waters and cross into areas that few ships can, will be greatly enhanced by the squadron, Buss said.
He called the manned and unmanned helicopters in one squadron the "perfect marriage."
The Fire Scout, made by Northrop Grumman Corp., will operate autonomously from ships and can fly over dangerous areas and allow service members on board the ship to see what is happening in real time. For instance, the Fire Scout can hover over an enemy target, maintaining contact, which will allow crews to fly back to a ship if needed to rearm and gather more troops, officials said.
Thursday's ceremony comes only a year after the Navy briefly grounded its fleet of Fire Scouts following two, unrelated crashes in a one-week period, according to the Navy Times.
On March 30, 2012, a Fire Scout crashed off the coast of West Africa after it was unable to safely land on a Navy ship. The crew later recovered the aircraft. Days later, another Fire Scout crashed during a surveillance mission in Afghanistan. Neither accident caused any injuries or damage.
In 2010, the U.S. military almost launched fighter jets when an errant Navy MQ-8B Fire Scout briefly veered into restricted airspace near the nation's capital after controllers lost the link to the aircraft. The Navy was able to reprogram the Fire Scout and bring it back, but the incident underscored safety concerns with unmanned aircraft as defense officials campaigned to use them more often during natural disasters and for homeland security.
Buss said Thursday that the "bugs" have been worked out.
Drones have become a game changer in modern warfare, allowing the military to penetrate areas that may be too risky for troops, but their air strikes have produced a backlash in places like Yemen and Pakistan, where civilian deaths sometimes undermine U.S. efforts to turn the public against militants.
The Navy is the latest branch to formally integrate drone technology into its operations.
The Army and Air Force both have established drone squadrons.