Home » Aviation » Northrop Grumman Pitching MQ-8C Fire Scout to Extend Lethal Range of Littoral Combat Ship


Northrop Grumman Pitching MQ-8C Fire Scout to Extend Lethal Range of Littoral Combat Ship

MQ-8C Fire Scout returns from a test mission on the Point Mugu Sea Range in Point Mugu, Calif. US Navy Photo

As the Navy pursues a new anti-ship weapon for its Littoral Combat Ships, Northrop Grumman is pitching its MQ-8C Fire Scout to help the crew find their targets hundreds of miles away.

By the early 2020s, the Fire Scout could provide targeting information for the LCS over-the-horizon surface missile and extend its lethal radius up to 300 miles, Scott Kennedy, director of business development for tactical autonomous systems, told USNI News earlier this month.

“The Fire Scout is on the ship. The captain has control of the ship and the Fire Scout. Now he has his own asset to generate that over-the-horizon targeting information. That’s a circle of influence and sea control out to about 300 miles,” Kennedy said.
“We can do it today with a Fire Scout MQ-8B. The mission payload operator could see and generate a target, communicate that through verbal means or otherwise and provide the over the horizon targeting.”

However, Northrop is developing internally the ability for the C-variant to have additional data links to share information directly with the targeting system in the LCS combat system.

The C-variant is set to field a Leonardo Osprey 30 active electronically scanned array (AESA) by 2020s. Kennedy said the C-variant could field a data link – like Link-16 – to transmit more detailed information from the radar to the ship for targeting information.

“What we really want to get to is fully integrated over-the-horizon targeting system. Fully integrated with the ship’s combat system and then ultimately the ability to provide an in-flight target update to a net-enabled weapon,” he said.
“That’s the long-term vision.”

The C-variant of the unmanned rotary-wing air vehicle is set to operate from the Navy’s emerging fleet of Littoral Combat Ships. The upgraded version of the Fire Scout – based on a Bell 407 helicopter airframe – is pending low-rate initial production approval (Milestone C) from the Pentagon.

NAVAIR also conducted a series of Littoral Combat Ship suitability tests earlier this month.

“This test established the MQ-8C Fire Scout as a maritime platform, bringing superior endurance and payload flexibility to the fleet, bringing capability that the U.S. Navy will continue to use for many years to come,” Capt. Jeff Dodge, Fire Scout program manager, said in a statement.

The Navy is currently set to buy 70 Fire Scouts: 30 Bs and 40 Cs. While the Fire Scouts are only planned for the LCS and follow-on frigates, Northrop Grumman said they could operate on more ships in the U.S. inventory.

“If we do well, you might see us migrating to other ships: amphibs to support expeditionary operations or [destroyers] if that makes sense, but right now they’re tied to LCS,” Kennedy said.

  • USNVO

    Has any prime contractor (or subcontractor for that matter) ever said the government should by less of their product or phase it out?

    • Rocco

      That would be stupid!!

  • delta9991

    Excellent increase in capability with the MQ-8C over the B. Longer range and more space for more sensors such as that radar will really expand the sensor coverage of the LCS as well as any additional ship its based off of. Couple that with a possible integration of JSM onto the MH-60R that we’ve seen at modeled at SNA the past few years and that pushes the engagement range out even further than a ship based system.

    • Marjus Plaku

      Excellent only for 3rd world enemy assets, otherwise it is not sufficiently stealthy or has enough endurance or is shielded from ECM and finally does not have a sensor package to out see or out detect or out range a proper warship before the MQ-8C is detected itself and shot down.

      300 miles yeah right, aside all the other factors that make this dubious, how about we get a missile on the LCS first that has more than a 5 mile range or warhead that weighs more than a house pet.

      • delta9991

        Considering the LCS is meant for littoral fights with small enemy “swarming” craft like those we saw hit the Saudi Corvette, that is the perfect sensor suite for the MQ-8C and the perfect weapon for the job. That ASuW suite is not meant to take on a similarly sized enemy combatant and was never meant to (even with the original NLOS). You’re trying to adapt it to a traditional role and into something it was never meant to be (which is why it got the new hull designation, instead of a traditional FF or something to that effect). FFGs lost out to DDGs in the US Navy, and we needed something for these low intensity missions, hence the LCS. Adding an on-deck NSM or Harpoon 4 or 8-pack is very much a program the Navy is pursuing for an “upgun” for existing LCS to make it more lethal to similarly sized combatants. My JSM comment is more for striking against similar size as well (such as Corvettes/Frigates) as generally these small combatants AAW suites aren’t nearly as robust as their destroyer counterparts, which could allow helicopters to make it into detection range without being engaged. It also would allow for strikes with info coming from other sensors in a battlegroup, not necessarily just its own. ECM is a very valid concern judging by what we’ve seen, but stealth and endurance? Come on now

        • USNVO

          People have been trying to make the LCS into what it was never intended to be since the program started. I blame the CNO for not explaining it more aggressively and then not publicly shooting the surface admirals who went off the reservation and made statements that clearly had no basis in reality. It is like everyone believes that every ship is worthless if it is not as capable as a DDG or something. Having said that, properly utilized, a MQ-8C could drive even the most high end combatant to distraction. It is not like you can shoot it when it is below the radar horizon and all of the tactics developed for the SH-2 and SH-60B will still work, they just have to be dusted off.

          • PolicyWonk

            The USN itself is guilty of trying to make LCS was it was never intended to be: a utility ship that was never intended to sail into harms way. As former CNO Adm. Jonathan Greenert put it, neither class of LCS “was intended to venture into the littorals to engage in combat…” (interview still on Breaking Defense).

            The very designation (“littoral combat”), based on the CNO’s own statement, attempts to make the ship/class into something it was never intended to be at the outset – potentially at the cost of the lives of those ordered to serve on them.

            No reasonable individual would expect a ship of this size to do what a Burke can. But they would expect it to be able to have a snowball’s chance in Hades of surviving a fight with a peer-sized ship from another navy: alas, LCS’s chances in this regard are very remote indeed – at an incredibly high cost to the taxpayers.

        • BlueSky47

          When the shooting starts, there will be no such thing as a “low intensity” combat zone (sounds like a “gun-free zone”), the bad guys will not play by our silly “littorial” rules. We classified the LCS as a warship. i.e a FRIGATE, therefore it’s a target regardless or how we feel about it or what we say on powerpoint. A warship during war will be targeted and sunk by the chinese, the russians, or the iranians, etc., and they won’t feel a thing when we say “but, but, but, it’s only for the littorials…” If this thing was only for the Persian gulf then we only need a couple of them-not fifty, we don’t need an entire navy built for the Persian gulf, while sailing the world’s oceans, “showing the flag” (and breaking down).

          • Duane

            Sure, the LCS can be targeted like any other warship, including our much larger DDGs, CGs, and CVNs. It’s NOT a frigate however.

            In any event, the LCS is the most defended littoral warship on the planet, far superior to fighting off littoral attacks than any other ship we have. Between its superb Mark 110 57mm high speed auto-loading gun with its guided “one shot, one kill” munitions, to its twin 30mm mounts and four 50 cal, plus its 24-cell Hellfire vertical launcher, plus its advanced SEARAM CIWS, it’s a far more lethal littoral combat ship than any frigate, even better armed than our big iron for massed, swarm attacks which are the most likely threat in the littorals. And it also has the ability to kill the big iron with its 8 cells of OTH missiles (likely initially either the Harpoon or the NSM, to be followed up with the LRASM).

          • Marjus Plaku

            The main gun, maybe is effective if it is slewed to the combat systems and sensors, if it is manual point and shoot with crosshairs on a screen, not much hope.

            The 30mm guns are atrocious in range qnd rate of fire and accuracy. I cringe when i watch tests from the operator’s point of view, all manual targeting, the whole camera/screen shakes and shudders you can’t see crap when you fire and it is not very effective, and if you have to use the 30mm or the 50 cals, might as well pray and jump overboard at that point. Amd again even the hellfires, not bad but only effective on the low low end of threats at a limited range.

            WHEN the OTH big missiles are finally integrated and installed I will feel a little better and this ship needs a proper armed helicopter or gunship not just a UAV scout.

            And still the no torpedoes thing drives me nuts.

          • Duane

            It’s not only not manual – it is highly automated with a highly sophisticated built in fire control system. Unlike larger naval guns that require crews of 6 sailors to operate, this gun only needs a single console operator. All the loading, pointing, and firing is computer controlled. The gun contains its own radar ranger, and uses a highly sophisticated electro-optical FLIR sensor that works day or night, through smoke and fog, and which automatically selects the fusing for each round. Two types of munitions are used – an unguided round, and a new precision guided round with guaranteed 1 meter accuracy with a radar proximity fuse for air burst, or it may be set for timed burst, or burst on contact by the FCS.

          • Curtis Conway

            “It’s NOT a frigate however.” EXACTLY!!! AND what did they replace ? . . 52 OHP Frigates! Every OHP was assigned ISE Operations and performed their presence missions well. The LCS/Frigate cannot perform at that level, or perform those missions with the same level of low risk . . . because they can just barely defend themselves, and that is within a 5 mile bubble.

          • Duane

            LCS can defend themselves as well as, and better than most, US warships.

            The only advantage a DDG has over a LCS in defense is NOT in own ship’s defense, but in area ABM defense. Just as I have written here many times. The LCS actually has a superior own-ship defense against ASCMs over that of most Arleigh Burkes, because only the newest handful of Flight II Arleigh Burkes have the Navy’s latest and most capable ASCM defense – the SEARAM. Most existing DDGs don’t have the SEARAM.

            Again, over and over again, for someone who claims to be experienced in DDGs, you continuously refuse to acknowledge that the AEGIS system and the supporting SM series missiles are for AREA DEFENSE, not own ship defense. Nobody is going to target ASBMs on a small warship like the LCS or any frigate … those missiles, of which there are actually very damned few, are targeted at big fat highly valuable targets – specifically CVNs – the entire purpose of the Chinese DF-21 ASBMs. The rest of the BMs that the AEGIS equipped destroyers and cruisers defend against are those BMs that target our homeland. Again, that has ZERO to do with defending one’s own ship.

            Why is it so difficult for you to understand that?

          • Curtis Conway

            The first line of defense against ASCMs and ASBMs is the Standard Missile (period). The last ditch self-defense weapon is the SeaRAM. THAT is why the BMD Destroyers in Rota had the emergent retrofit after deployment. You forget the Supersonic Telephone Pole traveling at Mach-3+.

            When one builds a combat system capability, one must prepare for every contingency, like ISE operations and you are ‘IT’, no one else is around. THAT is what frigates do MOST of the time. When with the battle group, they take station, and have a mission including defending the battle group. However, just like good citizens or parents, they must be able to take care of themselves FIRST! The LCS cannot do that, even the upgraded frigate version, and the upgrades made it a more lethal offensive weapon which makes it a higher priority target for the adversary. Anyone who has been underway, particularly in ISE conditions, understands this. Amateurs do not.

          • Duane

            An AEGIS equipped DDG or CG cannot sense a sea skimming ASCM from more than a few miles away, simply due to the obvious limitations of surface based radar systems. That’s why ASCMs are all sea-skimmers. So no, an Arleigh Burke cannot defend itself by itself from sea skimming ASCMs … to do that it requires ISR support from airborne sensors on E-2Cs, AWACS, various drones, and fighter aircraft … none of which operate from DDGs. All the DDG does is provide the long range missiles for long range AREA AIR DEFENSE (not own-ship point defense). Besides, fighter aircraft are just as able to take out ASCMs at even longer range with air to air missiles as are the SMs on the DDGs.

            And those same airborne assets are just as able, and do in fact provide, airborne sensing and AAMs to support LCS as they do to DDGs, CGs, and CVNs.

            You repeatedly make the same error of misunderstanding, that somehow ships are independent nodes that exist in a vacuum, totally alone, unsupported, totally self contained. No single warship of any kind can do that today in 21st century warfare. All nodes are interdependent, using the Navy’s NIFCCA system.

          • Curtis Conway

            “An AEGIS equipped DDG or CG cannot sense a sea skimming ASCM from more than a few miles away, simply due to the obvious limitations of surface based radar systems.” This equation has nothing to do with ‘surface based radar systems‘. It has to do with the curvature of the earth which both land-based and ship-based radars must contend. Then the non-rotating radar is the next advantage which the SPY radar has, but rotating radars must content with detection to detection based upon that rotation rate. With the advent of the digitally controlled AESA radar some of this can be mitigated with electronic steering and a rapid rotation rate. However, Western rotating radars are typically only radiating in one direction, not out the back, so a fixed array face provides many more transmitting options (mostly target determined) and accurate tracking information is provided at a higher data rate.
            Now let’s consider the target. Head on there is a small cross section to detect, and the advance of the missile is measured in minutes/seconds based upon speed, so the sooner one gets detections, the sooner one can launch. For Mk41 VLS equipped ships this must happed as far out as possible because the missile exiting the cell must accelerate, climb, turn back towards the surface and level out in front of the target before it gets to the target, and SM-2s do this. Ships equipped with Mk29 launchers Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (and SeaRAM) one can point at the target giving them an advantage, but metrics of missile range and speed to target apply.
            In our inter-linked fleet we typically have heads-up things are coming and are ready for the initial detection and launch. If you are by yourself, and no other sensors have eyes on target, you are out of luck. The Mk15 CIWS will typically be trained for engagement should the missiles fail, then you hope for secondaries with impact of the rounds so the target will destroy itself.
            So, defense in depth is the goal, and one uses every tool you have, and you take every shot you can when being attacked. Now . . . worse case . . . You Are ISE (Independent Steaming – by yourself), and a coordinated attack against your ship is underway, and if you have long range Offensive capability that just placed you higher on the target list. All weapons are to arrive on top at the same time and at points around the compass . . . what are you going to do? Some of us have been there and done that. I suspect (given your comments) you have not.
            By the way, not ALL ASCMs are sea skimmers. That is why having the ability to look straight up is important. The LCS has a hole over it, and that can be a problem. THAT is why I keep saying the LCS is a Disposable Ship!

            I’m done.

        • Duane

          The Navy has already fitted the Harpoon and NSM to the LCS via twin 4-cell angled deck launchers, giving the LCS the same anti-ship cruise missile munition used on our DDGs and CGs – just fewer cells in number (8 total). The Navy just issued an RFP last month to make a block buy of LCS OTH missiles, with the Harpoon and NSM expected to compete, along with possibly other candidates. It’s already decided, tested, and proven.

          The Fire Scout will make an excellent, easily used and available long range sensor picket for the LCS.

          In addition to that the LCS is part of NIFCCA, so that it will share in sensor and targeting data provided off-platform by our other naval ships, aircraft, and land based radars (easily available in the littoral). The Navy is in the process of networking everything it has, and the Army has, in a “network of networks”.

      • Duane

        Shooting down drones is not something that just happens automatically. Somebody has to sense it and then shoot it …. and the act of doing that reveals its location, which itself is valuable information.

        As for the LCS, it already has OTH missile capability – the Harpoon (by far our most numerous anti-ship cruise missile in the Navy) as well as the longer range (110 nm vs. 67 nm for the Harpoon) Naval Strike Missile. The Navy is also working on adapting the much longer range LRASM (out to 350 nm) to the same angled deck launchers used on the LCS for the Harpoon and NSM. The LRASM is a fire and forget weapon – it uses its own sensors to find targets, to discriminate between them (i.e., it knows a destroyer from a frigate or an oiler), and it is due to go IOC within about two years.

  • vincedc

    I know it is my job, but I’ve grounded enough aircraft to wonder what happens to the capabilities of these systems in bad weather. Seems like the bad guys would just wait until ceilings and visibilities drop to launch their attack.

  • BlueSky47

    I just realized that the LCS is the first ‘snowflake’ warship, designed for the littorial ‘safeplace’ where NO bad evil enemy ships warships will every appear, and if you say anything ‘bad’ about it, the ‘LCS justice warriors’ will tell you that “the LCS is the most powerful thing ever and that it can defeat any enemy, it’s more powerful than a Burke but that doesn’t matter because it’ll always be in the littoral safeplace…” LOL

  • Frank Langham

    Even if a NIFC-CA enabled Fire Scout was available (on deck and ready to fly), it could not acquire crucial data quickly enough to effectively counter an inbound swarm of ASCMs … What the USN *needs* is a tube launched sensor package that could reach stratospheric altitude (immediately, on demand) and relay a comprehensive snapshot to a networked (Baseline-X) battle management system.
    (Much sooner than later). … The sensor package could descend on a parachute and splash-down, using bouyant floatation and GPS beacon, for recovery and re-use. Really not as complicated as it sounds. No other defensive solution can be deployed quickly enough to counter hypervelocity swarms.