The US Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout autonomous vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) platform is set to acquire significant new capabilities under roadmaps drawn up both by Northrop Grumman and the service.
If all comes to fruition, the MQ-8C will in coming years be the beneficiary of an extended sensor package, enhanced Mine Countermeasures (MCM) systems, Satellite Communications (SATCOM), Advanced Tactical Data Link (ATDL), Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) capability, an optical landing system, a Sense and Avoid system, new weapons and an expeditionary basing capability.
The MQ-8C is based on the commercially successful Bell 407 helicopter and is itself a significantly more capable variant of the earlier MQ-8B, which was based on the Schweizer 330 and is due to retire next year, after entering service in 2012.
The US Navy has acquired 38 of the larger MQ-8Cs, primarily for embarkation on its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) fleet and its first operational deployment to sea was aboard the USS Milwaukee (LCS5) in the Caribbean Sea in January 2022.
Since then, the first deployment to the Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), aboard USS Jackson (LCS6), occurred in May and is currently ongoing. “We’re getting really great reviews (from the US Navy) about how the system is working,” explained Lance Eischeid, Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8 Program Director. “The baseline radar is the Leonardo (AN/ZPY-8) Osprey, which is a very capable maritime search radar and paired with the Teledyne Britestar II EO-IR sensor, it is certainly bringing a lot of capability to those detachments.”
The deployments have also been exploring manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) operations with the Sikorsky MH-60S Seahawks also embarked in the LCS’ and, most recently, the US Navy demonstrated a new Airborne MCM (AMCM) technology aboard the MQ-8C at Elin Air Force Base in Florida.
The demonstration was conducted to gather information about the BAE Systems Single-system Multi-mission Airborne Mine Detection (SMAMD) system that will be used to inform the integration of future MCM systems. SMAMD is a podded optical sensor suite capable of detecting mines and other obstacles on land and at sea in a single pass.
In conjunction with the work being done on SMAMD, the US Navy is investing in the development of the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA) Block II AMCM system for the MQ-8C, which will be more capable than the earlier Areté COBRA Block I system integrated into the MQ-8B variant. COBRA Block II is currently scheduled to achieve Initial Operational Capability in the 2027-2028 timeframe.
The ultimate goal is to produce an AMCM system comparable to the US Navy’s current Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS), which is a podded system carried by the MH-60 helicopters, but which is too large and heavy for the smaller MQ-8C.
“We’re also looking at adding SATCOM to the (MQ-8C) system, so that we can really take advantage of the range of the Fire Scout,” Eisheid added. “Right now, we’re pretty much tethered to the data link, which has about a 150 nautical mile range. You put SATCOM on there and we could get out to 700-800 nautical miles, and really push the stand-off distance to keep the ship out of harm’s way.”
The US Navy plans to pair the MQ-8C with an MH-60R Seahawk naval combat helicopter on its (Constellation-class, FFG62) future frigates. Given ASW is one of the MH-60R’s primary missions, Eischeid said discussions are underway between the manned and unmanned communities to explore how Fire Scout can augment the mission. “Such as carrying additional sonobuoys, monitoring sonobuoy fields and taking advantage of the endurance of the platform.”
“We’re also looking to expand the classes of ships Fire Scout is integrated with and working with the Navy on the Expeditionary Staging Base (ESB) concept and we’ve actually done some work off those,” Eischeid detailed. The ESB concept involves controlling the Fire Scout from a deployable ground control station that can be readily positioned ashore by MH-60S.
“Some of the other capabilities that we’re looking to integrate just over the next four or five years are the aforementioned SATCOM, an optical landing system – whereby we’d remove the current RF-based system which comes with some hardware footprint, with one which uses cameras to locate deck spots; Sense and Avoid systems, resilient communications and advanced tactical data links,” Eischeid added.
Northrop Grumman hopes to interest the Royal Australian Navy in Fire Scout for future blocks of its Sea 129 Phase 5 acquisition strategy. In May, the Commonwealth announced that the Schiebel S-100 Camcopter would be the subject of a sole-source acquisition program under Block I of the three-block Sea 129/5 maritime uncrewed aircraft systems (MUAS) project. Other capability acquisition blocks are anticipated at five-year intervals.
“As Sea 129 evolves over coming years – and clearly Navy has a sense of urgency around the need to continue to evolve quickly – we see a family of systems being the right approach,” Northrop Grumman Australia Sea 129/5 Program Director ‘Jake’ Campbell said. “Whether it’s a humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) response, or something at the high-end of warfighting, we believe Fire Scout has utility right across that spectrum of operations.”