Naval Air: Helicopter UAV Loss Rate

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June 2, 2021: The U.S. Navy lost its first MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter UAV to an operational accident. In April an MQ-8B based on a 3,200-ton twin-hull LCS type vessel crashed on takeoff. The UAV had either flight control software or mechanical problems and veered back towards the ship right after takeoff. The UAV did not hit the ship crew or superstructure but the spinning rotors hit a safety net and the hull before hitting the water and sinking to the sea floor. Like all aviation accidents and losses this incident is being investigated to find out what went wrong. The wreckage will be recovered and examined. There have already been two accidents because the rotors hit something on landing or take off. The 8C uses flight control software based on what the 8B has been using for over a decade. Manned helicopters have similar accidents but the flight control software was designed to minimize those types of accidents. The number of flight hours before the first total loss gives the MQ-8B a much lower rate at this stage of its career than fixed wing UAVs like the MQ-1 Predator.

The navy only has 24 (now 23) MQ-8Bs in service and they have been operational since 2009. During those twelve years, the MQ-8B has operated safely from land bases and ships and accumulated nearly 15,000 flight hours without loss. No other helicopter UAV has served for so long and regularly operated off ships for months on end. The navy is eager to find out what happened because the MQ-8B was an interim design for the larger MQ-8C which will soon enter service and in much larger numbers than the MQ-8B.

In late 2020 the U.S. Navy finally delivered the first MQ-8C helicopter UAVs to a Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC). Here the MQ-8Cs was tested to qualify for a safe-for-flight certification. This was accomplished by October 2020. While doing that the HSC has been training sailors to maintain and operate the newly certified MQ-8C. Following crew training the HSC assigns MQ-8Cs and their support crew (maintainers and operators) to a ship. The first ships receiving MQ-8Cs are the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship) and later the new frigates the navy is building.

Sometime in 2021 the MQ-8Cs should be regularly operating from an LCS. This comes eight years after the MQ-8Cs first flew. There were a lot of tests, certifications and tinkering during those eight years. For example, in mid-2019 the navy declared the MQ-8C had achieved IOC (initial operational capability). In other words, ready for regular use on ships. The navy already has nineteen MQ-8Cs and eventually wants to have 90 of them. Getting that approved depends on how useful the MQ-8Cs is in regular service. Each of the new MQ-8Cs will cost $18 million fully equipped.

The MQ-8C made its first flight in October 2013. The first MQ-8C was quickly created by having the mechanical and software components that turned a manned helicopter into a UAV, transferred from an existing MQ-8B Fire Scout and installed in the larger Bell 407 helicopter. As a result, the 1.4-ton MQ-8B Fire Scout became the 2.7-ton MQ-8C. This simple sounding concept actually worked but was followed by eight years of developing and testing software as well as mechanical modifications to the airframe.

The navy found the MQ-8C could be armed with 70mm APKWS laser-guided missiles but decided to concentrate on an unarmed model that specialized in surveillance and reconnaissance. As a result, max endurance of the 8C is 12 hours, or more, depending on payload. Max range from the controller is 270 kilometers, cruise speed is 207 kilometers an hour (max 270), ceiling is 4,900 meters (16,000 feet) and max payload is 1.3 tons. Much of the payload is usually fuel, which explains the high endurance. Endurance is also limited by high temperatures and can be as low as 10 hours if operating in very hot weather.

The first MQ-8C was supposed to enter service in 2016 but that was delayed by the need for field testing from ship and land bases. This allowed time to perfect modifications to the design. The MQ-8C entered limited (IOC testing) service in 2018. By the time IOC was reached, the two prototypes and 17 pre-production MQ-8Cs had flown over 360 sorties and spent about 550 hours in the air. By 2020 it was over 430 flights and over 750 flight hours. In addition to reconnaissance and surveillance missions, the MQ-8C can also carry cargo.

While the military has been slow to adopt helicopter UAVs, there was sufficient interest to keep the manufacturers at work on new models. The navy kept Fire Scout when the army dropped it because helicopters are more practical on ships where there is limited room for landings and takeoffs. Navy MQ-8Bs Fire Scouts completed months of successful use on a frigate (in both the Atlantic and Pacific) and were also in action over Libya and Afghanistan. However, the small size of the MQ-8B limited its usefulness and it proved to be more prone to wear and tear, resulting in more time spent on maintenance and less time ready for action. Note that the standard manned helicopter for ships is the ten-ton SH-60 Seahawk. When flying at sea and operating off the back of a warship, size does matter, and that’s the main reason for the MQ-8C.

The smaller MQ-8Bs found their time in Afghanistan was valuable not just for getting more air time but also working out any problems encountered while flying in a hostile land environment. The U.S. Navy planned to equip LCS/frigates and destroyers with one or two MQ-8Bs but dropped those plans when the MQ-8C demonstrated much better performance. The navy currently has 23 MQ-8Bs in service out of 30 purchased. The remaining MQ-8Bs will be assigned to LCS type ships and used until they wear out.

The MQ-8B is based on the 1.5-ton Schweitzer 330 manned helicopter. The MQ-8B can carry 90 kg (200 pounds) of sensors and weapons. It has an endurance of 8 hours and a cruise speed of 200 kilometers an hour. The MQ-8B was tested using the Griffin (a 16 kg/35-pound guided missile with a range of 8,000 meters) and the 11.4 kg (25 pound) APKWS (based on the World War II era 70mm unguided rocket) with a range of 6,000 meters.

The MQ-8C could carry heavier weapons, as well as more capable sensors. The navy went with the new generation of sensors. In 2016 the navy selected the Italian Osprey 30 AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar for its MQ-8C. The Osprey radar is lightweight (50 kg/110 pounds) and uses small flat panels on the sides of the aircraft instead of a rotating radar in a dome underneath the aircraft. The three flat panels give the Osprey radar 360-degree coverage. Osprey is more reliable because it has no moving parts at all. The AESA radar was so successful that it was decided to concentrate on unarmed MQ-8Cs specializing in maritime surveillance. The AESA radar was also effective on land as it can detect vehicles. MQ-8C can quickly determine the GPS location of anything the radar detects and transfer that information to nearby airplanes or ships so targets can be attacked. The AESA radar is particularly good at detecting the small armed speed boats the Iranians and North Koreans like to use.

The MQ-8C has digital communications and can share its radar (and other sensor data) with the growing number of navy ships and aircraft also equipped to handle digital data. The success of both models of the MQ-8 has caused the army, which was initially a partner with the Navy in developing the MQ-8, to consider rejoining the program.

The success of the MQ-8B and C, especially the large number of hours flown, has attracted export customers for both models. The navy is building 20 new frigates to complement 35 LCS ships and expects the MQ-8C to do well on both types of ships as well as on larger vessels; destroyers, amphibious ships and even on large carriers because of the high endurance and possible use in ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare).

 


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