The Navy declared its MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter mission capable and ready to deploy aboard Littoral Combat Ships.
The initial operational capability (IOC) declaration comes after the Navy rethought how it was going to use the aircraft. A little more than a year ago, the Navy was still testing how Fire Scouts could be used to repel swarm attacks of small attack craft. By this spring, the Navy scrapped those plans in favor of loading the aircraft with sensors to provide an LCS with superior over-the-horizon targeting capabilities.
“This milestone is a culmination of several years of hard work and dedication from our joint government and industry team,” Capt. Eric Soderberg, Fire Scout program manager, said in a media release. “We are excited to get this enhanced capability out to the fleet.”
By achieving IOC, the Navy can now begin fleet operations and training, according to the Navy. Current plans call for purchasing 38 Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scouts, which are based on a commercial Bell 407 airframe.
The MQ-8C, which is larger than the MQ-8B currently used by the Navy, will start deploying during Fiscal Year 2021. The MQ-8C can fly up to 12 hours and will be equipped with an upgraded radar allowing for a larger field of view before deploying. The improved radar also offers a range of digital modes including weather detection, air-to-air targeting and a ground moving target indicator (GMTI), according to the Navy.
A variety of reasons factored into the decision to change the Fire Scout’s mission into one more focused on providing targeting and other surveillance data to an LCS, Cmdr. Edward Johnson, the Navy’s Fire Scout requirements officer, said earlier this year during a panel at the WEST 2019 conference.
The Navy rethought how it wanted to employ the LCS, focusing on adding more lethality and longer range to the ships for a Pacific-focused capability and focusing less on using the ships to patrol U.S. 5th Fleet waters where the risk of swarm boat attacks was greater. The evolving LCS mission caused Navy officials to determine a better use of the Fire Scout is to load it with surveillance and targeting equipment to further enhance the LCS’ improved lethality, Johnson said at WEST 2019.
The decision to focus on targeting missions comes after the Navy experienced some space constraints associated with arming the Fire Scout aboard an LCS. The Navy intended the Fire Scout to carry BAE System’s advanced precision kill weapon system (APKWS), which are modified 70mm Hydra rockets fitted with a guidance system.
While a smaller MQ-8B Fire Scout was able to successfully demonstrate its ability to operate the weapon aboard an LCS in 2018, it became clear the LCS ships themselves do not have a lot of magazine space, explained Capt. Jeff Dodge, the Navy’s Fire Scout program manager, during a presentation at Navy League’s Sea Air Space 2018 exposition.
The LCS has one weapons magazine used to store all weapons for the ship and doesn’t provide much space for loading weapons aboard the smaller MQ-8B airframe which has three tube launchers, Dodge said last year. The larger MQ-8C could carry up to seven tube launchers.