The Fire Scout system has proven itself in numerous and diverse operational deployments, supporting troops on the ground in Afghanistan, completing weapons Rapid Deployment Capability (RDC) testing with the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), continuing deployments on Guided Missile Frigates (FFG) class ships, and now preparing to welcome a new air vehicle to its ranks. This week the newest Fire Scout variant, MQ-8C Fire Scout, will take to the skies for the first time.
I still have some lingering doubts about the Fire Scout program in general. Unmanned helicopter operations from small US combatant ships have a surprisingly long history, dating back to the QH-50 DASH program of the late 1950s. They also have a history of very high attrition rates. There’s a reason the DASH program gave way to the LAMPS manned helicopter program that continues to this day.
Having said that, it would seem the MQ-8 FireScout program is here to stay. And the potential of an unmanned off-board sensor system is great. The ability of a warship to control sea space is primarily a function of the reach of its sensors. Further, in this age of limited warfare, discrimination of targets is critical. Radar can detect targets at fair ranges, but even now it generally requires electro/optical sensors on a target to determine if a potential target is in fact a target. And so the Fire Scout gives a commander a set of eyes that can quickly view objects of interest, even far over the horizon.
One of the selling points of the MQ-8B FireScout was that it used a relatively cheap airframe, based on the civilian Schwietzer 333 helicopter. It’s relative low cost and small size meant that a Littoral Combat Ship could carry one manned MH-60 series helicopter and up to three MQ-8B’s.
But along the way, the Navy began to realize that a big part of the FireScout system was not tied to any particular airframe. The investment in the semi-autonomous control system, and the sensor and networking package was the heart of the program.
And end-users began to ask for more and more endurance. And so the MQ-8C FireScout was born. As an indication that the payload was the heart of the program, rather than the platform, the same MQ-8 designation was applied to an entirely different airframe, something we can’t recall ever before.
When the use of the 407 was first floated a couple years ago, I scoffed that the Navy had managed to take an essentially 50 year old helicopter design and simply unload the pilots. My first thought would have been that it would be cheaper and easier to simply fly manned Bell 407s (or OH-58Fs) from ships.
But then I saw the one critical difference in performance between a stock 407/OH-58 and the “Charlie” FireScout.
Most manned helicopters give an endurance of about three, maybe four hours tops.
But by using all the payload capacity that would formerly have been applied to squishware* instead to fuel, the “Charlie” has an incredible endurance of up to 15 hours. That’s roughly four to five times what you get from a manned helicopter, and roughly twice what the earlier MQ-8B had.
That kind of endurance gives a ship’s captain a great deal of time on station and persistence in his ISR** organically that he could never achieve even with support from manned long range platforms like the P-3C or the new P-8A.
And while the Charlie is a good deal larger than the Bravo, if they can fit two Charlies in the space allocated for three Bravos aboard an LCS, that will be a net positive in time on station, especially given that the Charlie won’t have to cycle back to Mother for gas as often.
Currently, most DDGs and FFGs capable of operating helos only carry one MH-60, even though they have hangar space for two. Will the second hanger be utilized for an MQ-8C? If not, why not?
To be sure, there will be challenges in the FireScout program. And some failures. But a program I was deeply skeptical of at first is starting to win me over, slowly.
**Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance