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By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Should amphibious attack vessels be closing in quickly on an enemy shoreline, they would certainly need specifics on minefield threats and enemy fortifications on land quickly to avoid lethals collisions en route. Much of this hinges upon pure speed when it comes to information sharing and threat detail transmission, so a fast-approaching amphibious attack could elude or destroy mine-fields and other enemy obstacles while closing in for a beach landing.

It is perhaps with these kinds of maritime warfare dynamics in mind that the Marine Corps is quickly making strides accelerating air attack tactics by strengthening real-time networking and target-data transmission between attack helicopters and Fire Scout drones. This development offers commanders new options for maritime operations by shortening the critical sensor-to-shooter time loop and getting target detail to human decision makers on a much faster timeline to exact effective and timely responses, defenses and counterattacks.

Fire Scout Drone

In a recent exercise, the Corps linked UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper helicopters with sensor data coming from the Navy’s Fire Scout drone. The connectivity took place at the Naval Air Facility El Centro, California, and succeeded in conducted attacks while
“Marines and sailors operating in the ground control station assisted with the target detection and strike coordinate utilizing a MQ-8C Fire Scout,” according to a Corps statement. 

An AH-1Z Viper (front) with Marine Operational and Test Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1) and an MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 (HSC-23) conduct Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance Training near El Centro, Calif., on March 10, 2022. (Lance Cpl. Jade Venegas/US Marine Corps)

An AH-1Z Viper (front) with Marine Operational and Test Evaluation Squadron 1 (VMX-1) and an MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 (HSC-23) conduct Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance Training near El Centro, Calif., on March 10, 2022. (Lance Cpl. Jade Venegas/US Marine Corps)

It makes sense that the Corps would be taking new steps with manned-unmanned teaming given the speed of technological progress in the realm of autonomy, networking and information processing. Extending this thinking, it also make sense that the Corps would look at the Fire Scout given the series of impactful upgrades and modernization efforts unique to the Fire Scout.

For several years now, the Fire Scout has been operating with a critical coastal mine detection system likely to be of critical significance to Marine Corps amphibious landings. Called COBRA, for Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis, the integrated sensor system was specifically engineered to help find and identify mines and other threats in littoral and coastal environments, an operational task which greatly improves the prospect of a successful amphibious assault. Interestingly, a Navy report as far back as 2017 describes the unique value added emerging from integrating COBRA into the Fire Scout.

Fire Scout

Fire Scout Unmanned Aircraft System

“Previously, such reconnaissance was only possible by putting Sailors or Marines on the beach in advance of a landing, exposing them to casualties and revealing an intended landing zone,” the story writes.

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“COBRA represents a real step forward for tactical reconnaissance of beach areas,” said Melissa Kirkendall, mine warfare programs. “With COBRA, the Navy/Marine Corps team can quickly look at a possible landing zone and detect mines and obstacles that would inhibit landing force mobility during an assault.”

Newer implementations of manned-unmanned teaming would certainly put the Fire Scout in position to be even more impactful as a reconnaissance asset in coastal areas, as threat detail might travel much more quickly to helicopters, surface ship command and control or other critical armed nodes in position to respond to threats. 

The entire concept, articulated in large measure with the Navy’s Project Overmatch efforts, is to massively truncate sensor-to-shooter time and deliver processed, time-sensitive data across multiple domains to operate inside of or in front of an enemy's decision cycle.

There are other even more recent innovations likely to impact the growing efficiency of cross-domain manned-unmanned teaming to include newer computer processing technologies able to process incoming data at the point of collection. 

An ability to gather incoming ISR detail, organize large volumes of data and identify crucial items of relevance quickly expedites the command and control process, giving warfighters an ability to conduct time sensitive attacks in response to new intelligence information. 

This real-time processing technology, likely to increasingly integrate AI in coming years, is a specially configured “POD” built onto the Fire Scout called The Single System Multi-Mission Airborne Mine Detection (SMAMD). Simply put, manned-unmanned team improvements can enable helicopters, ships and even drones themselves to attack targets quickly.

The SMAMD program uses an “airborne sensor suite that will have the ability to have real-time onboard processing coupled with low false alarm rates will enable the warfighter to respond swiftly to detected threats,” a write up from NAVAIR, Naval Air Systems Command states.

Faster processing at the point of collection is an extremely impactful technological breakthrough for mine-hunting missions and ISR overall as, instead of needing to return and manually upload or present threat information for analysis, AI-enabled computer data processing can take place at the point of collection to expedite the ISR and decision-making progress exponentially.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization