Related Video Above: Navy Connects Air, Surface, Underseas Drones
*A top Warrior Maven article. Republished for viewer interest
Hunting submarines, destroying mines, tracking targets, networking forces and even possibly firing torpedoes are all missions performed by the fast-growing number of Navy Unmanned Vehicles designed to operate above, below or directly on the surface of the ocean.
Not only are Navy Unmanned Vehicles growing in terms of sheer numbers, given the addition of numerous new surface and undersea unmanned systems, but their range, operational scope and mission envelope is expanding quickly as well.
Undersea Unmanned Vehicles, for example, increasingly draw upon various levels of autonomy to find, track and in some cases independently detonate mines beneath the surface. The Navy’s Large and Medium Unmanned Surface Vessels, for example, are expected to bring new levels of AI-enabled autonomy to maritime warfare with robotic sub-hunting technologies and capabilities such as the ability to gather, analyze, process and transmit time-sensitive warfare data from the edge of combat point of collection.
Unmanned Vehicles typically thought of and developed for point-to-point data link-enabled surveillance are now much more networked across a larger force and able to perform a greater range of functions without needing human intervention.
All of this points to the Navy’s strategic effort to optimize attributes unique to human cognition and decision-making as well as high-speed computer processing and nearly instantaneous data analysis and transmission. Essentially, the approach is to achieve an optimal blend of both human decision making and AI-enabled computing, synchronizing and connecting the two through manned-unmanned teaming interoperability.
MQ-8C Fire Scout Drone
One key example of this kind of mission expansion is seen with ongoing efforts to expand the mission sphere of the well-known Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout, a ship launched unmanned helicopter, capable of countermine operations, long-endurance flights, aerial ISR and other kinds of maritime anti-surface warfare missions.
With support from the Navy, Northrop Grumman innovators are moving quickly to explore the possibility of leveraging Fire Scout’s range, mission endurance and sensor fidelity to support Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). This capability has been demonstrated on a Fire Scout manned surrogate.
The MQ-8C Fire Scout is a larger, upgraded variant of the existing MQ-8B Fire Scout Unmanned Vehicles, which now flies from Littoral Combat Ships. The “C” variant is based upon a Bell 407 commercial utility helicopter but operates high-fidelity maritime sensors intended to hunt mines, search for enemy submarines and of course send back real-time video feeds to ships about threats and objects of interest otherwise beyond visual range.
There are many reasons why a Fire Scout will be impactful when it comes to ASW missions. Submarines often come close to the surface for periods of time to maximize connectivity with RF or GPS signals, or to snorkel to recharge battery banks. Using Fire Scout as an ASW platform leverages the persistent “stare” of longer-dwell ISR over areas too vast or difficult for manned aircraft to cover. Certainly, endurance is a key variable, as an unmanned system can operate for greater periods of time without needing to return to a host ship.
Recommended for You
“Fire scout is right now about an 10 hour aircraft. Now if it carries a lot of sonobuoys, we'll reduce that time considerably due to the increased weight, but not to the point that we're not still more efficient than a manned aircraft. On a good day, a fully-loaded MH-60 Romeo (MH-60R) is going to fly two and a half to three hours max, whereas we're still looking at over seven hours for a Fire Scout in an ASW configuration,” Dan Redman, Northrop Grumman Program Manager, told The National Interest in an interview.
The concept is to draw upon manned-unmanned teaming concepts of operations to combine the range, endurance and sonobuoy-carrying capacity of the Fire Scout with the maneuverable manned MH-60R ship-launched SeaHawk helicopter.
“We don't want to take away capability from a manned platform but supplement the manned platform in a couple of ways get a better search rate and detection capability,” Redman said.
To explore this possibility, Northrop Grumman conducted a demonstration with the Fire Scout manned surrogate. During the demo, the Fire Scout used a prototype sonobuoy launcher to drop six buoys to locate an undersea target. The undersea target was towed beneath a boat and detected by Fire Scout-deployed sonobuoys.
The concept of operation, as described by Redman, is for the Fire Scout to use its range and endurance to drop and survey sonobuoys in support of manned helicopter. A manned helicopter can, for instance, stay closer to a host ship while networked with a forward-positioned Fire Scout able operate for as long as 11 hours out to ranges of 100 nautical miles.
“I think 100 miles is where the sweet spot is as far as range. It allows time to get there and stay on station. I think that fits with how we perceive the Navy's CONOPS in terms of where you'd want to be, especially in the Western Pacific. There are places where a ship doesn't want to get close,” Redman added.
Certainly sonobuoys networked to C4I systems can detect submarine threats beneath the surface at tactically relevant ranges, there is great operational value in having more sustained, long-dwell surface imaging across dispersed areas as well. This is something an Anti-Submarine-equipped Fire Scout would be positioned to perform.
“Having a good surface picture knowing where surface contacts are is critical in ASW so that you can help eliminate whether or not you have a false contact like a surface ship or whether you need further investigation,” Redman said.
There is a clear survivability dimension to all of this, as having unmanned systems operate in high-risk or hostile areas certainly keeps manned platforms at safer stand-off ranges. This kind of survivability equation might also pertain in a clear way to sub-hunting missions as a large sub-hunting manned aircraft might be extremely vulnerable in a high-intensity, high-risk maritime warfare scenario. A Fire Scout, the thinking goes, helps protect the lives of service members while simultaneously helping preserve valuable air assets.
“The Fire Scout can help preserve the life of a manned platform by doing the dull, dirty, and dangerous missions which allows the manned platform to conduct the highly specialized missions they are designed for extending the life of the platform while reducing overall mission costs. ,” Redman said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.