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As the well known, helicopter-like MQ-8B Fire Scout drone flies beyond the horizon into the sunset after many years of successful missions, the Navy and its industry partners are sharpening focus on its larger, more-capable successor ... the MQ-8C Fire Scout variant.
MQ-8C Fire Scout
Engineered with a wide range of expanded technologies, the “C” model leverages an unmanned Bell 407 helicopter frame to deploy a larger, massively upgraded vertical-take-off-and-landing maritime drone.
Northrop Grumman developers say that the MQ-8C’s value to the Navy is its flexibility and endurance.
“It’s a Swiss army knife – with the ability to carry much more payload than other smaller systems and handle the Navy’s broad spectrum of missions from MCM and ASW, to MUMT and potential cargo,” a Northrop developer said.
Part of this transition pertains to an interesting and impactful Navy shift away from its Littoral Combat Ship, given the service’s plans to decommission as many as eight to 10 LCS ships, according to its 2023 budget request. The rationale, as explained to Congress by Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, is based upon a service assessment that the LCS simply could not compete against a highly advanced Russian or Chinese Naval threat.
Del Toro cited a specific Navy need to track and destroy enemy submarines as central to the service’s decision, given the challenges that have been associated with the LCS’s Anti-Submarine Warfare modules.
“The particular problem we are facing on the eight we plan to decommission is the problems with the new ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare) modules on these ships. The ships were designed to meet a different threat and it will be challenging for these ships to contribute to the high-end fight,” Del Toro told the House Appropriations Committee earlier this year.
At the same time, the Navy is vigorously and aggressively accelerating development of a new fleet of air, surface and undersea drones, while also expanding the technical capacity and mission scope of existing drones. More specifically, this means the Fire Scout “C” variant is already applying its advanced technologies in support of major maritime warfare missions beyond those envisioned for an LCS.
Adding more drones, command and control technologies, and air assets to Amphibious Transport Docs, such as the Fire Scout would seem to align with this concept as the Navy prepares for more separated, yet connected fleet operations. A Fire Scout could launch from a Landing Platform Dock (LPD) and potentially relay images, video feeds, or intelligence information to a nearby Amphibious Transport Dock or other ships involved in an integrated mission.
“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback on how the MQ-8Cs are operating. With the LCS decommissioning beginning, US and the Navy are jointly trying to find additional ship classes, as well as potential land base expeditionary advanced base opportunities for the Fire Scout,” Lance Eischeid, director, Fire Scout program, Northrop Grumman, told Warrior in an interview.
While the MQ-8B has performed well with surveillance and mine-hunting missions, the newer MQ-8C variant brings a host of unprecedented advantages such as longer dwell time over targets, expanded ISR capacity reaching beyond the ship’s radar horizon and greater endurance. The “B” Fire Scout, for example, operates with four-to-five hours of “on station” time, whereas the “C” expands that to 10+ hours of endurance and a range of over 1,000 nautical miles, enabling over-the-horizon targeting. This development is of great significance for the Navy’s Fire Scout “C” for several key reasons, as the drone is positioned to further transition beyond its role with LCS mission packages.
As a result, it seems that the Fire Scout “C” may be uniquely positioned to support anti-submarine warfare. Adding an ASW capability to Fire Scout’s existing multi-mission capabilities would further enhance this highly-versatile platform. This ASW capability would offer commanders flexibility to employ not only UAS systems in this particular ASW role, but also utilize the increased availability of crewed aircraft more incisively against an expanded mission set. This would increase the total available effect of the manned/unmanned teamed force mix. The ability to carry, drop and monitor sonobuoys, not just work with a manned sonobuoy carrying platform, makes Fire Scout an invaluable asset.
With regards to amphibious operations, the drone has already gone through a fit check on the USS Anchorage, an Amphibious Transport Dock and is concurrently being assessed for integration into a number of different maritime platforms such as amphibs, the service’s growing fleet of Expeditionary Sea Bases and even being considered for the first USS Constellation-class Frigate.
“Fire Scout really is not tethered to one particular ship, and in this case, the LCS, so we've been looking at other ship classes. ESBs expeditionary staging bases is one that we've actually done some flight testing with the Navy,” Eischeid said.
The rapid expansion or refinement of Fire Scout mission concepts aligns with current Navy and industry effort to ease “integration” of the LCS onto different platforms through the development of deployable, high-tech, maritime command and control stations. This increases operational flexibility and of course improves the speed at which a Fire Scout can operate from a new ship.
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“We've taken a couple of different approaches, one of which has been ensuring that we have a flexible and portable control station. On the LCS, the control station is integrated into the ship. The Navy has what they call a mobile control station, but it's a pretty big Conex box. I wouldn't call it very portable,” Eischeid said. “In recent years, Northrop Grumman has developed our MCS-X Mission Control Station Expeditionary. Very recently, the Navy has similarly developed an MCS-Portable MCSP. Both of these kind of do the same thing. They take all the functionality of the integrated control station and they repackage it into Conex boxes that can be quickly packed up and redeployed to another ship or to an island or to another site,” Eischeid added.
Expanding the Fire Scout introduces some interesting new synergies, given that some of the innovations, upgrades and enhancements to the platform position it to potentially be quite impactful in major maritime warfare circumstances, such as submarine-hunting, beyond-the-horizon networking and various emerging laser and radar technologies being developed to detect and destroy enemy subs, ships and mines.
Should an enemy submarine surface for just a few minutes, there might be a short time window with which to engage and destroy the boat before it quickly disappears. Should a Fire Scout be in position to use long-range, high-fidelity sensors, it might be able to quickly cue armed aircraft, ship commanders or other decision-makers to authorize the use of force fast-enough for the Navy strike and destroy the submarine. The use of long-range, high-speed ISR can of course massively shorten the “sensor-to-shooter” timeline and help place the Navy in an advantageous position.
Fire Scout augments manned platforms missions to do the dull, dirty, and dangerous, Northrop developers say, due to its the endurance. There is a critical manned-unmanned teaming aspect to this kind of submarine hunting, as a Fire Scout drone could work in close coordination with a Sonobuoy-dropping, torpedo-armed MH-60R Navy helicopter. The two platforms could exchange time-sensitive information across safe stand-off distances wherein a Fire Scout could “cue” a manned helicopter to attack a submarine or surface threat it has identified with Hellfire missiles, laser-guided rockets or even torpedoes.
When it comes to emerging concepts of amphibious warfare, ship-launched ISR will likely figure more prominently in the future as the force increasingly becomes more dispersed, networked and enabled by long-range sensors and weapons. Supporting ship-to-shore transport with autonomous unmanned Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance drones brings new dimensions to amphibious attack, particularly in a more dispersed or disaggregated maritime attack formation.
“Fire Scout can provide the long-range targeting along with in-flight target updates, and ensure that we keep the ship safe and out of harm's way and still be able to guide the munition to its target,” Eischeid added.
An unmanned, forward-operating aerial sensor able to connect quickly with its host ship could alert commanders about where there might be weaker coastal defenses or high-threat concentrations of enemy weapons and assets, without placing Marines or sailors at risk. Such an asset could bring paradigm-changing levels of survivability for approaching ship to shore craft, which could potentially be vulnerable to enemy fire while in transit.
The Navy’s LCACs or newer Ship-to-Shore Connectors can efficiently transport key forces to shore during an amphibious attack. While they can of course benefit from air support or ship-based suppressive fire, they are not well armed and could be targeted while in route to fortify landing forces. This mission is often the primary role of a Navy Amphibious Landing Dock which dispatches transport craft for amphibious landings.
Also, due to the rapid degree to which the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy is coming to fruition, Amphibious Landing Docks are expected to increasingly perform more autonomous or independent missions separated from an Amphibious Ready Group to improve range and fleet survivability by disaggregating to leverage mission envelope, yet rely upon hardened long-range networking to sustain connectivity with other surface ships. More dispersed approaching forces not only reduce vulnerability to enemy fire but can also maximize the range and scope of a given assault, enabling Commanders to quickly benefit from large amounts of real-time information.
Adding long-dwell ISR to these kinds of missions could help protect LCACs and amphibious landing forces by finding threats at distances beyond where surface ships can detect, enabling counterattack possibilities and other combat-enhancing adjustments. As part of this, the Navy has also experimented with arming the Fire Scout in recent years, something which has not formally been decided upon, yet it is a tactical option which would place forward unmanned systems in a position to destroy key targets when directed by human decision -makers while manned platforms operated at a safer stand-off distance.
When it comes to countermine warfare, there of course many deep water threats alongside littoral and coastal mine areas wherein forward positioned drones could help protect surface ships with forward detecting ISR. Countermine technology on the Fire Scout would also be of particular significance in support of amphibious attacks, as forces attacking from ship-to-shore will need mine threats to be identified and neutralized prior to their arrival along the coast or beachhead.
The “C” Fire Scout would be an ideal platform to operate an upgraded increment of a special coastal mine-hunting technology called Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis, or COBRA. Operational now for many years on the MQ-8B, COBRA’s main function is mine-detection and submarine hunting. The “B” model incorporates what’s called COBRA block 1, however the “C” Fire Scout will integrate a more advanced COBRA block 2 variant. The Navy’s ongoing effort to integrate an effective datalink called LINK 16 could help the Fire Scout move from a single point-to-point transmission wherein it sends video feeds and data back to a host ship to being able to operate as a key combat “node” within a larger meshed network of platforms.
Referring to this technological capacity earlier this year at the Surface Navy Association Symposium, Capt. Eric Soderberg, former MQ-8 Fire Scout program manager, said “Fire Scout will be able to share its targeting data with the controlling ship and also disperse it more broadly. COBRA block 2 is based upon a LIDAR system which puts laser energy into the water and measures the returns to determine whether they have a mine or not.”
Adding the Fire Scout would also closely align with the Navy’s current expansion of its fleet of ESB, key platforms intended to operate as maritime “sea bases” during war operations. Navy ESBs are being upgraded and added to the fleet with a sense of intensity, likely due to the crucial role they might be expected to play in theaters such as the Pacific where vast, expansive oceans and waterways might make it difficult for land-based operations to function as an integrated unit or operate within reach of enemy targets. An ESB, however, could dispatch Special Operations Missions with small boats, launch helicopters and function as a critical staging area for maritime combat operations.
There is also the question of continued modernization, given the pace at which networking, data processing and targeting technologies are emerging. There is a decided and fast-progressing effort to increasingly process incoming sensor-data at the point of collection using AI-enabled technology. This can massively improve efficiency and enable a drone like a Fire Scout to quickly identify data or moments of greatest relevance and transmit time-sensitive data across the force to a range of nodes including surface ships, helicopters, armed drones or fixed-wing aircraft.
“We’re actively working on building more autonomy into the mission capabilities. Operators are getting so much information from the sensors, we are working to use machine learning and AI to be able to really distill that information down to what the operator needs to see, so that they can make better decisions. This can involve telling the aircraft where to fly based on the mission picture and then respond and go to those areas, and automatically do radar collections or EOIR imagery,” Eischeid said.
There is a key “gateway” ISR function a drone such as the Fire Scout could perform as well, as surveillance platforms can function as aerial “nodes” linking ship command and control with threat data from beyond the horizon. Such a Navy technology, using manned platforms, deployed as long ago as 2015.
A now deployed program called Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air (NIFC-CA) operates from US Navy destroyers. It is an integrated system which uses an aerial gateway node such as a Hawkeye surveillance plane or even an F-35 to “relay” threat data about incoming enemy attacks such as anti-ship missiles from range well beyond the radar horizon or range reachable by surface ships, and cue a surface to fire an SM-6 interceptor missile to track and destroy the approaching missile at safer standoff ranges. This enables ship commanders to have more time with which to decide upon a counterattack or simply destroy incoming enemy missiles. With advances in autonomy and networking, it seems entirely conceivable that a Fire Scout or other unmanned platform could perform this kind of data “relay” operation wherein threat specifics are transmitted across otherwise unreachable distances.
Autonomy and networking, therefore, are of vital significance to the Navy’s overall effort regarding its expanding drone fleet; the service has for many years been working on a “Ghost Fleet” or “Operation Overlord” concept wherein groups of surface, air and even undersea drones are able to use AI-enabled autonomy and advanced algorithms to coordinate movements, tactics and mission specifics in relation to one another in support of an overall mission objective. This has proven particularly critical when it comes to the rapid Navy development of unmanned surface vehicles of all sizes.