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Video Above: How the Navy Will Stop Chinese "Carrier Killer" Missiles

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) The Navy is now arming its amphibious attack vessels with what could be called a robot helicopter, an unmanned helo-like autonomous drone capable of vertical take-off from a ship deck. The drone, which operates with radar detection and EO/IR cameras, can bring a new kind of support to such such as Amphibious Transport Docks, vital Navy platforms, often operating in Amphibious Ready Groups, which launch ship-to-shore Landing Craft Air Cushions to deliver weapons, equipment and Marines for offensive attack operations from the ocean.

The Navy plans to deploy its FireScout MQ-8C drone on board amphibs as soon as this summer, having just completed an initial “fit check” of the drone on board the USS Anchorage (LPD-23), an Amphibious Transport Dock, according to a Northrop Grumman statement.

The FireScout MQ-8C is a larger, upgraded variant of the existing MQ-8B FireScout drone which now flies from Frigates and Littoral Combat Ships. The “C” variant is based upon the configuration of a Bell 407 small utility commercial helicopter but operates as a large, high-fidelity vertical take off 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.

Supporting ship-to-shore transport with autonomous unmanned Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance drones bring new dimensions to amphibious attack, particularly in a more dispersed or disaggregated maritime attack formation. A 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 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 landing.

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 with sustain connectivity with other surface ships. More dispersed approaching forces not only reduces 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 more drones, command and control technologies, and air assets to Amphibious Transport Docs, such as the Fire Scout has been a Navy goal for several years throughout its effort to prepare the fleet for more physically separated, yet connected fleet operations. A FireScout could launch from an LPD and potentially relay images, video feeds or intelligence information to a nearby Amphibious Transport Dock or other ships involved in an integrated mission.

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Arming FireScout with Rockets

The MQ-8B variant Fire Scout drone, now deployed on Navy Frigates and Littoral Combat Ships, has test fired hydra 70 2.75-inch laser guided rockets, a precision weapon able to pinpoint enemy ships, drones or even submarines close to the surface. Long fired from helicopters, the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons Systems folding-fin 2.75 rockets offer a precision-strike ability smaller than an air-launched Hellfire yet still lethal enough to have a substantial impact.

Arming a ship launched drone with these weapons, with human Commanders operating in a command and control capacity, introduces new forward attack possibilities in maritime warfare by enabling other ship-launched attack platforms such as MH-60R helicopters to operate at a safer standoff distance. A FireScout Drone could, for instance, operate beyond line of sight and, if directed by a human commander, fire weapons upon enemy shore positions or even small fast-attack boats.

The more than 3-thousand pound FireScout can fly up to 110 knots at altitudes of 20,000 feet, to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions; the FireScout uses shallow-water countermine sensors called COBRA, for Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis.

A key element of the armed FireScout would be to maximize networking, as its Northrop Grumman developers have explained that the drone has operated successfully in autonomous operations with other drones and surface ships. It has been part of the Littoral Combat Ship’s anti-submarine, countermine and surface warfare Mission Packages intended to generate an overall combat effect through a combination of helicopters, drones, sensors, weapons and surface-ship technologies.

An armed, ship-launched drone could dramatically reduce sensor-to-shooter time and give Commanders a new rapid-response capability, should reconnaissance operations discover time-sensitive target opportunities.

Land-launched drones such as the Reaper or Army Gray Eagle have been armed for many years, as they can easily be operated from ground-based command and control facilities. Performing moving command and control at sea can of course introduce new challenges, yet the Navy is making rapid progress integrating more drones with its surface fleet. The service is even engineering small drone headquarters on board aircraft carriers to leverage the added mission possibilities afforded by drones. There is also a continued ability for airborne command and control, meaning a manned Navy helicopter could likely operate a forward drone while sustaining connectivity with a host ship. Army Apache and Kiowa helicopters, for example, can already control the flight path and sensor payload of nearby drones, a technical capacity in development now for many years which brings new tactical dimensions to airborne attack. Using this kind of reconnaissance and targeting at sea could, for instance, integrate FireScout drones with surface and even air drones to function as meshed relay “combat” nodes within a larger connected maritime warfare network.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.