Northrop Grumman has officially announced the first operational deployment of the MQ-8C Fire Scout, an unmanned helicopter designed for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting (ISR&T) missions at sea. To accomplish these missions, the MQ-8C features an updated Active Electronically Scanned Radar (AESA) that will allow it to detect targets at long ranges and in all weather conditions, as well as a powerful electro-optical and infrared search ball. Besides ISR&T, the Fire Scout has been tested in a wide variety of roles, including mine interdiction and anti-submarine operations which hold promise for future expansion of its core mission set.
The MQ-8C was deployed with Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22, Detachment 5 (HSC-22 DET 5) aboard the USS Milwaukee (LCS-5) since December. Key to the Fire Scout’s ability to detect and track contacts at sea is its Leonardo AN/ZPY-8 (Osprey) radar system that was designed for “mixed environment operations” such as the complex coastline around which the USS Milwaukee is meant to work.
On a Northrop Grumman media call attended by The war zone today, Captain Eric Soderberg, the U.S. Navy’s program manager for multi-mission tactical unmanned aerial systems (PMA-266), said that this new radar will allow the MQ-8C to fulfill an indispensable role within naval helicopter units. The MQ-8C is designed to “complementary operation” with the manned MH-60S Seahawk helicopter operated by HSC-22 DET 5 and other similar detachments on board.
“The MH-60S brings weapon capability, cargo capability, but what it lacks is radar,” Soderberg said. “The Fire Scout, with its radar, provides the ability to view large volumes of water and [conduct] maritime surveillance over the horizon radar [of] the LCS ship itself […] With its endurance, it allows the ship to maintain contact with contacts over a long period of time, which would not be possible with the ranges and endurances of the MH-60S, so they complement each other well.”
“Now that we got that radar on [the MQ-8C] it becomes a fairly clear answer that the [MQ-8C] is a superior platform” to previous Fire Scout configurations, Soderberg added. He said the MQ-8C is “performing as expected” and the Navy is now accelerating the transition from the MQ-8B to the MQ-8C.
The Navy’s Fire Scout program dates back to 2000 when the service sought an aging replacement RQ-2 Pioneer and makes vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability one of the requirements. The Navy cut funding for the program in 2001, after which the Army actually ordered the first Fire Scouts, then known as the RQ-8B, in 2003. In 2006, the Navy again became interested in the program and the MQ-8B took its first flight in 2006. The Army would terminate participation in the program for the RQ-7 Shadow in 2010.
The MQ-8C, which achieved Initial Operational Capability in 2019, has a range of over ten hours and a range of over 1,000 nautical miles. The unmanned helicopter is based on the hugely popular Bell 407, a four-bladed, single-engine helicopter used largely for civilian utility roles. The MQ-8C is bigger than the previous one MQ-8Bwhich was based on a Schweizer 330/S333. Compared to its previous version, the MQ-8C has three times the payload capacity and a 30% increase in top speed.
In a Northrop Grumman Press releaseSoderberg said the recent deployment aboard the USS Milwaukee was “an important milestone” for the Fire Scout program. “The transition from the MQ-8B to the MQ-8C Fire Scout has brought improved sensors and more than doubled on-station endurance…Advances in Fire Scout capabilities reinforce our successful integration of unmanned platforms at sea and the Navy and Marine Corps unmanned campaign plan,” he explained.
The MQ-8C has been sought after for a number of mission sets. In addition to its over-the-horizon targeting capability and ability to conduct ISR missions, Northrop Grumman has previously experimented with dropping lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes from a modified Bell 407 as a substitute MQ- 8C. A more recent experiment was conducted in 2020 in a similar helicopter launched from sonobuoys.
Marine already tested AN/DVS-1 coastal battlefield reconnaissance and analysis (COBRA) airborne mine detection system on board an MQ-8B. During today’s media call, Soderberg said it’s possible the MQ-8C will get an updated version of this system, further expanding its capability set. “What is potentially in development would be a COBRA Block II that would go on the [MQ-8C] and have additional abilities not residing in COBRA Block I, primarily in a deeper water environment.
Fire Scouts could also see wider deployment aboard other ship classes. Soderberg said that while the Fire Scout is intended for naval coastal combat ships like the USS Milwaukee, it is also possible to base Fire Scouts on Navy Expeditionary Sea Bases, or ESBs. “We currently have flight clearance for this vessel, we have mobile mission control stations that can be deployed to these vessels,” Soderberg said on today’s media call, adding that the Navy is currently studying the logistical requirements that would be necessary. for such deployment.
While the newer and more capable Fire Scout currently lacks any weapon system of its own, Soderberg noted that there is a “technical way forward” if the decision is made to arm the MQ-8C. , but at the moment there are no funded efforts to do so. In 2019 it was reported that the Navy wanted to add weapons and other stores to the MQ-8C, but the Navy did not respond to comments at the time. The MQ-8B, meanwhile, was capable of carrying a variety of weapons ranging from Hellfire missiles to the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or APKWS, laser-guided rockets.
Despite recent successes and the first operational deployment of the MQ-8C, the Navy has already begun looking for a replacement for the Fire Scout under the U.S. military-led Future Vertical Lift program which seeks to find new vertical lift aircraft. vertical for all services. from the 2030s. Navy requirements for this program include anti-submarine warfare.
Finding ways to counter the growing threat from Russian and Chinese submarine fleets, in addition to other submarine capabilities, is among the Navy’s top priorities. As past experience has shown, unmanned aircraft could be essential to a new concept of “distributed” anti-submarine warfare operations. The MQ-8C could be an extremely viable means of realizing such a concept in the short term.
The MQ-8C’s ability to detect and track targets over long ranges, then assign strike duties to other assets, keeps manned ships and helicopters out of harm’s way in the event of a major maritime conflict. in which anti-ship missiles will not doubt plays a major role. The fact that the Navy will equip each LCS with the Naval Strike Missile brings a whole new level of importance to the MQ-8C’s long-range targeting mission. This will be an essential tool in realizing the over-the-horizon strike capability of these ships.
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