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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan - The Navy is testing a long-range drone that hovers 70,000 feet above aircraft carriers and allows fleet commanders to track suspicious vessels across vast expanses of sea.

A prototype of the as-yet-unnamed drone, referred to as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system, is in action with the Navy's 5th Fleet and, according to one naval expert, could help keep tabs on any Iranian threats to shipping in the Persian Gulf.

Iran's army chief, Gen. Ataollah Salehi, on Tuesday warned American aircraft carriers not to return to the Gulf - the latest in a series of provocations responding to new sanctions imposed by the U.S. over Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Navy officials won't talk specifics about the missions the unmanned maritime aircraft is taking part in around the region, saying only that the drone flies a 24-hour long mission every three days and is providing more than half of 5th Fleet's aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information.

But the Navy could use the BAMS Demonstrator - an RQ-4 Global Hawk equipped with modified Air Force radar, a high resolution camera and infra-red sensors - to track hundreds of suspicious vessels in the Gulf, according to Jan Van Tol, a retired U.S. Navy captain who is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.

"This is obviously an important mission, especially in view of current tensions," he said.

Potential Iranian threats include submarines, torpedoes, missiles, mines and small boats that might be packed with explosives to attempt swarming attacks on U.S. ships. The BAMS and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets would have plenty of time to spot suspicious vessels because the entrance to the Persian Gulf is about 20 miles wide at its narrowest point, Van Tol said.

The first BAMS aircraft off the production line will make a maiden flight in June, with a target date on entering the service in 2015, according to its manufacturer, Northrop Grumman.

The drone, in combination with new manned P-8A Poseidon jets, will replace the Navy's aging fleet of 250 P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, representing a sea change in the service, according to Capt. James Hoke, program manager for the Navy's Persistent Maritime Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office in Patuxent River, Md.

"It's the first time we are really going forward with… unmanned replacement for a manned aircraft," Hoke said.

The P-3, which began service in the 1960s, is one of only a few aircraft that have been operated by the U.S. military for more than 50 years.

The Navy will purchase 117 Poseidons from Boeing, with the first of the modified 737 commercial jets operational from 2013. Twenty of the new long-range maritime surveillance drones will be fielded from 2015 with all of the aircraft operational by 2019, Hoke said.

The new planes will join a patrol and reconnaissance group at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Fla., Hoke said, with personnel spending part of their time flying drones and part of it piloting the P-8s.

While being piloted from afar, the unmanned aircraft will be assigned to the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean, 5th Fleet in the Middle East, and 7th Fleet in the Pacific.

Four of the new drones will be based on the Pacific island of Guam, where the Air Force already flies its unmanned Global Hawk. Four will be at Sigonella, in Sicily, four will be at a secret location in the Middle East, Hoke said. And Walt Kreitler, Northrop's director of business development for the new drone, said he expects four of the Navy drones to fly out of Beale Air Force Base, Calif. and four to fly out of Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

The Navy's new drones look like the Global Hawk, but the resemblance is skin deep.

The front edges of the aircraft's wings have been toughened to withstand bird-strikes while its electronics are designed to withstand power surges from lightning, Kreitler said

The Navy drones have stiffer wings that allow them to dive below 10,000 feet to get a closer look at targets floating on the water. At that altitude there are strong wind gusts that could tear a Global Hawk to pieces. To survive in rough weather the Navy drones will also add de-icing equipment, Hoke said.

The system that will be fielded in 2015 also will include state-of-the-art maritime radar and sensors that can rotate 360 degrees and capture full-motion video, according to Cmdr. Craig Dorrans, who is helping lead the drone project.

"BAMS will have an automatic identification system that picks up transponders on commercial shipping that gives us position, course and flag," he said, adding that air-to-air radar will help the drone avoid mid-air collisions.

The ability of the drone to pick up ships' transponders will help commanders focus on vessels that are not sending the signals or which appear to be sending bogus signals, Hoke said.

The Navy's demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information about what's going on in the world's oceans is almost unlimited, Kreitler said.

Northrop's initial contact, to develop and build the first two drones for the Navy, is worth $1.6 billion. The company expects to manufacture 68 aircraft but it is still negotiating the price, Kreitler said.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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