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Video Above: Navy Connects Air, Surface, Underseas Drones

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

The Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout surveillance drone is soon to be ready for war, now that the drone has embarked upon its first deployment aboard the USS Milwaukee Littoral Combat Ship.

Operating in the region of US Southern Command, the helicopter-like drone has been conducting counter narcotics missions, identifying targets of interest and refining surveillance data for further prosecution, Capt. Eric Soderberg, MQ-8 Fire Scout program manager, recently told a group of reporters.

The Fire Scout completed an integrated ship training evolution in preparation for operational deployment, is intended to begin a Navy process wherein the MQ-8C Fire Scout deploys everywhere the LCS goes.

MQ-8C Fire Scout vs. MQ-8B Fire Scout

The MQ-8C Fire Scout is a larger, upgraded variant of the existing MQ-8B Fire Scout Unmanned Vehicles, which now flies from the LCS. 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 ships and of course send back real-time video feeds to ships about threats and objects of interest otherwise beyond visual range.

MQ-8C

MQ-8C Fire Scout flying over Webster Field Annex

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 ten to 12 hours, Soderberg said.

“With its endurance, it (Fire Scout “C”) allows the ship to maintain contact which would not be possible with an H-60S (helicopter),” he added. 

Yet another breakthrough advantage of the “C” comes with its advanced software which, as Soderberg put it, “allows the system to correlate among the multiple sensors on the platform.” For instance, the drone’s radar data can be correlated with its EO/IR sensor data, something which Soderberg said eases the workload for pilots.

The “C” Fire Scout will likely also operate with 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. 

“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,” Soderberg said.

MQ-8C Fire Scout

An MQ-8C Fire Scout takes off from the flight deck of the USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), Jan. 6, 2022 (U.S. Navy)


The Navy is progressively phasing in the “C” model over time to fly alongside and ultimately replace the existing “B” variant.

“There is no cliff, it is a gradual drawdown. Transitioning from B to C will happen over the next few years,”

While the upgraded MQ-8C has already been operational or “ready” for several years, yet the Navy is deploying it now because it has been outfitted with a new radar system making it much more capable than the MQ-8B it is replacing. 

“Now that we have that radar on the C, we are accelerating the transition from the “B” to the “C,” Soderberg said.

In recent years, the Navy has been working closely with Northrop Grumman to integrate a maritime radar onto the platform, a system which is now going onto the “C” Fire Scout. The drone is also specially configured to work in tandem with MH-60S helicopters, Soderberg added

Arming the MQ-8C Fire Scout

The Navy has not funded any specific efforts to arm or up-gun its now-operational MQ-8C Fire Scout drone, the possibility does clearly exist based on a previous service analysis of the platform.

“We did complete a study and our analysis showed we have a technical way forward to add weapons to the platform. At the moment, there are no funded efforts to do this,” Capt. Eric Soderberg, MQ-8 Fire Scout program manager.

MQ-8B Fire Scout

MQ-8B Fire Scout

In development and testing for many years, the Navy’s MQ-8C is now deployed on board the USS Milwaukee Littoral Combat Ship in the region of Southern Command, marking a decided surge forward for the helicopter-like unmanned reconnaissance platform.

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An armed Fire Scout, by extension, could integrate surveillance and targeting with precise weapons attacks, of course with humans in a decision-making role when it comes to the possible use of lethal force. 

Fire Scout

MQ-8C Fire Scout

However, if an enemy ship or submarine moving along the surface were detected by a Fire Scout able to transmit real-time images and targeting data back to a host ship’s command and control system, a Navy Commander could then authorize the use of a Fire Scout fired rocket, missile or gun of some kind.

The surveillance, targeting and actual attack could be performed autonomously by the Fire Scout once a human decision-maker authorized the use of lethal force. This can not only greatly decrease latency when it comes to pairing sensors-to-shooters to destroy a fast-moving target quickly, but it can also greatly expand the offensive strike envelope for its host ship such as an LCS. 

MQ-8C LCS

An MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter conducts underway operations with an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter and the Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) on June 28, 2018. The new Fire Scout variant is expected to deploy with the LCS class to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, and precision targeting support. US Navy photo.

A Fire Scout would not need to relay target data to an armed manned platform in order to attack, something which may not be in the immediate vicinity. Clearly this would expedite an ability to move quickly in the event that new targets emerge and then vanish quickly.

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. Should this come to fruition, Soderberg explained, the “Fire Scout will be able to share its targeting data not just to the controlling ship but disperse it more broadly.”

This kind of paradigm-changing information and targeting exchange could, for instance, enable an armed MH-60S helicopter to quickly fire missiles at a target identified and transmitted in real time by a Fire Scout. With LINK 16, an armed Fire Scout could fire upon targets sent from another surveillance asset, once directed by a human decision-maker. 

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 armed, however, a human decision-maker might be able to authorize the use of force fast-enough for the Fire Scout to strike and destroy the submarine. 

“If you wanted real time updates for a weapon, LINK 16 would be the one whose task is to find and fix targets at a range that a navy ship could not do otherwise,” Soderberg explained. 

MQ-8C Fire Scout on More Ships 

Now that the Navy has deployed its MQ-8C Fire Scout drone aboard a Littoral Combat Ship with great success, and its performance continues to inspire new thinking and concepts of operation related to the drone being used from a wider sphere of platforms. 

Should the surveillance, mine-hunting and ship-detecting surface skimming drone continue to perform as anticipated, there is a chance the now operational Fire Scout could fly from one of the Navy’ Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) ships.

“We have been asked to entertain flying the Fire Scout on the ESB. It has a mobile mission control station that can be deployed on those ships, so we are feeding data back into our chain of command to see what logistics support will be needed to make that happen,” Capt. Eric Soderberg, MQ-8 Fire Scout program manager, recently told a group of reporters.

Expeditionary Sea Base

Expeditionary Sea Base

Adding the Fire Scout would 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.

The sheer maritime expanse of the Pacific is filled with dangerous flashpoints such as the South China Sea, Senkaku Islands near Japan, and of course Taiwan. Any great power confrontation in the Pacific would rely heavily upon the U.S. Navy’s ability to project and sustain power from the sea. The ESB platform designs and technological configurations may be evolving as they are in part for this reason.

 An MQ-8C Fire Scout-enabled ESB, however, could potentially detect threats at farther ranges and expand the ship’s surveillance scope out beyond the visible horizon, giving ship Commanders and sailors a much better picture of incoming threats.

“With its endurance, the Fire Scout can allow a ship to maintain contact which would not otherwise be possible with the MH-60S (helicopter),” Soderberg said.

Soderberg praised the performance of the Fire Scout MQ-8C saying it has functioned as anticipated, bringing an unprecedented surveillance capacity, endurance and radar technology to the LCS and possibly more platforms as well.

 “I see a lot of opportunities that the Navy could employ the Fire Scout,” Soderberg said.

-- Kris Osborn is the President and Editor-in-Chief of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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 Miltary Modernization