CORONADO, California (AP) — The U.S. Navy on Thursday inaugurated its first squadron with both manned and unmanned aircraft, becoming the latest branch of the military to formally integrate drone technology into its operations.
The Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35 is expected to have eight manned helicopters and 10 of the Fire Scout MQ-8 B, an unmanned helicopter that tracks targets and eventually will be armed, said Cmdr. Christopher S. Hewlett, its 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 Fire Scout 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, allowing crews to fly back to a ship if needed to rearm and gather more troops, officials said.
Most Navy drones now are operated by contractors overseen by military personnel. The squadron's operators will undergo training for the Fire Scout next month.
The Army and Air Force both have established drone squadrons.
Drones have become a game changer in modern warfare, allowing the military to penetrate areas that may be too risky for troops and giving forces greater flexibility because operators can be swapped out easily at their desks versus bringing back a manned aircraft's entire crew.
But drones' increasing use has sparked debate. Air strikes by drones have produced a backlash in places like Yemen and Pakistan, where civilian deaths are breeding resentment and sometimes undermining U.S. efforts to turn the public against militants.
Associated Press writer Julie Watson contributed.