US & Canada

US Navy unveils unmanned drone squadron 'the magicians'

A Fire Scout MQ-8B helicopter on the ground in San Diego, California 2 may 2013
Image caption This Fire Scout MQ-8B unmanned helicopter will eventually be armed

The US Navy has launched a squadron combining unmanned drones as well as manned aircraft, amid a national debate over the role of drones in warfare.

The Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35, called the Magicians, is the first such unit.

It will have eight manned helicopters and 10 Fire Scout MQ-8B unmanned helicopters for tracking targets.

The Obama administration has expanded use of drones in counter-terrorism operations overseas.

At an inauguration ceremony at the Naval Air Station North Island at Coronado, California, Vice Adm David Buss said the new squadron "points toward the future for our naval aviation forces".

"The actions today represent a clear line dividing what naval aviation once was and what it will be," he said.

Over the summer the squadron's first task will be to undergo training and develop operational guidelines.

Squadron Cdr Christopher Hewlett, who will oversee about 140 sailors, said the drones would eventually be armed.

The Fire Scout drones are expected to deploy off a new line of ships designed to operate in shallow coastal waters, called littoral combat ships, which are to be launched in the Pacific next year.

The drones can be controlled by two "pilots" up to 110 miles (177km) away and fly for at least eight hours.

Support role

The high-speed littoral combat ships can operate at shallow depths and access waters that few other ships can, Vice Adm Buss said.

The unmanned aircraft, which can operate autonomously, can provide real-time information to servicemen by travelling over dangerous areas, officials said.

One could, for example, hover above a target and maintain contact while helicopter crews returned to re-arm or gather more troops, they said.

In spring 2012 Fire Scout drones were grounded after two unrelated crashes in the same week, the Navy Times reported.

The US has acknowledged its use of drones for targeted killings of militants, and drones have reportedly been used in Pakistan and Yemen. In February it was revealed that the CIA had been operating a drone in Saudi Arabia.

US officials insist strikes by the unmanned aircraft rarely claim civilian casualties and are an effective weapon against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

More on this story