Jacksonville Naval Station could fly armed drones

Navy could soon fly helicopter-like surveillance drones called 'Fire Scout'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The Navy could soon be flying armed drones one day on the far side of the world from a remote piloting station on Jacksonville's Westside.

A one-of-a-kind center for drone pilot is expected to be up and running within a few months, according to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. He is scheduled to inspect the under-construction facility at Naval Air Station Jacksonville and be briefed on the program Monday morning.

Nelson, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, will also see first-hand an existing center where the Navy is already flying unmanned helicopter-like surveillance drones, called the "Fire Scout."

The Navy reportedly wants to begin using armed Fire Scouts by next year, and plans to begin tests on an armed version in March.

Gary Belson is an army veteran who says this is a major military job creator forĀ Jacksonville.

"I believe that it probably will," said Belson. "Absolutely."

Belson pointed out that these drones are unmanned aircraft that can be remotely controlled from here in Jacksonville for lethal strikes from the air in war zones halfway around the world.

"It's relatively recent, but their ability to do it now has been enhanced because of our technological capabilities that have been improved," said Belson. "Because they don't have to put a live person into the area of harm, they can do it with a mechanical thing."

Belson said he's adamantly against the use of unmanned drones to watch over U.S. citizens.

"Using it domestically for certain issues, I personally don't support it for that," said Belson.

The U.S. military's increasing use of unmanned drones, especially those used for lethal strikes, along with the pending nomination of drone-supporter John Brennan as CIA director have brought the use of drones to center stage.

Brennan testified on Thursday before the Intelligence Committee on the possibility of a special court being created to oversee the use of killer drones.

There is growing debate in states and cities over the use of unmanned drones by law enforcement. Nelson said police will not be trained to pilot drones at the Navy's center.

Currently, the Navy's only training center for operators of MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopters is at NAS Jacksonville.

The robocopter, which the Navy said it primarily uses for surveillance and intelligence gathering missions, has previously been deployed to hunt for pirates off Africa, track drug smugglers in South America and was used during the Libyan civil war in 2011.

The Navy has previously said it plans to purchase 175 of the unmanned helicopters. The Fire Scout training center opened its doors just this past July.

A new state-of-the-art 8,983-square-foot facility to train operators of a second drone, called the Triton, which is designed to scan the oceans, broke ground last September and is slated to open this fall.

The long-range drones, known as Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or BAMS, can cover 2,000 nautical miles of sea and fly in for a closer look at suspicious ships.

Nelson said he has been a supporter of the surgical use of force via drones.

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