The U.S. Navy is sending one of its LCSs (Littoral Control Ship) to the West Pacific equipped with four MQ-8B Fire Scout UAVs on board. There is already a frigate in the Mediterranean with several MQ-8Bs and a Coast Guard cutter in California has been equipped with an MQ-8B. For two years there were six MQ-8Bs operating in Afghanistan. So far the navy has bought 23 MQ-8Bs and 19 of the larger MQ-8Cs. As far as the navy is concerned the Fire Scout has proved itself and now it wants to get more of them to sea.
In late 2013 the U.S. Navy completed testing the use of the MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV on the LCS. This included testing for the UCARS (UAV Common Automated Recovery System) used on the LCS. UCARS is the new standard UAV landing system for navy ships. UCARS sends out a signal to UAVs when they are several kilometers away and automatically guides them into a landing on the ship. This works with helicopter or fixed wing UAVs.
The LCS is a unique class of frigate size (about 3,000 tons) ships that come in two versions (monohull and trimaran). The LCS was designed from the start to operate a helicopter UAV (and other remotely controlled surface and subsurface vehicles). The LCS was designed to carry a one manned helicopter and one or two UAV helicopters. The recent testing makes it possible to begin equipping all LCS ships with the MQ-8B and soon the MQ-8C as well.
The navy has been developing a larger MQ-8C version, which made its first flight in October 2013 for over a year. The MQ-8C was created by having the mechanical and software components (that make a manned helicopter into a UAV) from the MQ-8B Fire Scout installed in the larger Bell 407 helicopter. As a result, the 1.4 ton MQ-8B Fire Scout becomes the 2.7 ton MQ-8C. The MQ-8C has had no problems with flight testing and is supposed to be ready for service by the end of 2014. Proponents of the MQ-8C want a larger model of Fire Scout because that would provide more endurance, greater stability in bad weather, and the ability to carry more weapons.
MQ-8C will be ready so quickly because it is using a lot of the MQ-8B technology. While the military has been slow to adopt helicopter UAVs, there is 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 most navy ships (for landings and takeoffs). Navy Fire Scouts have completed months of successful use on a frigate (in both the Atlantic and Pacific) and were recently in action over Libya and Afghanistan. However, the small size of the MQ-8B has limited its usefulness and the 8B version 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.
Since it entered service in 2009, the MQ-8Bs have spent over 12,000 hours in the air. The 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 has been equipping some frigates and destroyers with one or two MQ-8Bs.
The 1.4 ton 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 can carry the Griffin (a 16 kg/35 pound guided missile with a range of 8,000 meters) and the 11.4 kg (25 pound) 70mm guided missile (based on the World War II era 70mm unguided rocket and with a range of 6,000 meters). The MQ-8C can carry heavier weapons, like the 48.2 kg (106 pounds) Hellfire missile.
The U.S. Navy is also equipping Fire Scout with some high-end sensors. One of these is the RDR-1700 maritime-surveillance radar. The 32 kg (71 pound) RDR-1700 operates in a 360 degree mount underneath the helicopter. This is a SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) system that shows objects on the water in a photorealistic way. The max range of this SAR is 80 kilometers, although for the most detailed resolution max range is 25 kilometers. SAR can see through clouds and even sand storms (which sometimes blow out over coastal waters). The RDR-1700 can also be used over land for terrain mapping or for weather detection. The RDR-1700 software enables the radar to track up to 20 surface or aerial objects at a time. The RDR-1700 would be operated from the ship the Fire Scout took off from and provide longer range search and reconnaissance capability at night and in bad weather. This would be particularly useful in the Persian Gulf (where Iran uses a lot of small but heavily armed speed boats) or off the Somali coast (where pirates like to operate at night with multiple speedboats stalking a larger ship).