The older, smaller MQ-8B Fire Scout compared to the new and larger MQ-8C (US Navy).

The older, smaller MQ-8B Fire Scout compared to the new and larger MQ-8C (US Navy).

At 11 years old, the robot helicopter called the MQ-8 Fire Scout is a at least a preadolescent. But ever since the reconnaissance drone’s first flight in 2002, it’s had one big problem: It’s a little bit…little.

So, at the Navy’s request, manufacturer Northrop Grumman basically did a brain transplant. It put the Fire Scout’s software, appropriately modified, in a much larger helicopter. If the new adult-sized Fire Scout, designated MQ-8C, meets the Navy’s expectations, it will be able to fly about 50 percent faster, 25 percent higher, and more than twice as long than the current model, MQ-8B. That would make the C-model a much more effective scout for the fleet, which is especially important for a controversial warship with size issues of its own: the Littoral Combat Ship.

The first of the larger Fire Scouts started flying last fall. As of yesterday, Northrop now has its second MQ-8C in the air. The two robo-choppers are currently just flying out of land bases, but shipboard tests are scheduled for the summer. The MQ-8C should be able to fit aboard the Navy’s FFG-7 Perry-class frigates, which already use the smaller MQ-8B as well as the larger (and manned) SH-60 Sea Hawk. But for now, the Navy plans to start testing the MQ-8C on its big DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers.

In the long run, though, the warship program with the most at stake is the Littoral Combat Ship. Smaller, faster, cheaper, and considerably more fragile than a Perry frigate, let alone a full-sized destroyer, the LCS was designed from the start as a kind of miniature aircraft carrier, a modular mothership that could launch and control a wide variety of unmanned aircraft, mini-subs, and surface craft.

This network-of-robots concept for the future force is especially close to the heart of the incoming Deputy Secretary of Defense, LCS proponent Robert Work. But LCS fans like Work have an uphill battle. Work’s predecessor, Acting Deputy Secretary Christine Fox, has already slashed the planned buy of Littoral Combat Ships, a cut that may by now be baked into the 2015 budget and the accompanying long-term plan for 2016-2019 that are due out next month.

The Littoral Combat Ship has come in for plenty of criticism, not only within the Pentagon, but on Capitol Hill and in the thinktank world. Most of the negative attention has focused on the survivability and reliability of the ships themselves. But because LCS is meant as a mothership, the program really sinks or swims based on the performance of the drones that it can carry– drones like the now-upgraded Fire Scout.

A second MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter flew for the first time at Naval Base Ventura County, Pt. Mugu, Calif., on Feb. 12. Current flight tests are focused on validating the flight capabilities of the system before ship-based flights take place this summer. Northrop Grumman photo by Alan Radecki

Northrop Grumman’s second MQ-8C Fire Scout takes flight.

Comments

  • Gary Church

    The future and past- but which is which? My bet is drones (and anti-ship missiles) are going on the little black shark. The chicken farm and the “cheap” LCS toy boat are a waste of money.
    As for the “cheap” (it is NOT cheap) LCS; no junk helicopter to robot conversion is going to make it worth a dime.

    • Gary Church

      click on the picture for a better view of the little U-Boat that could, and 1000 foot floating target that can’t (survive).

      • Arthur Cooper

        If you knew how our Navy moves across the oceans, you would know we do not leave our most valuable assets like LHD,s and CVN,s, unprotected.

        Other assets, in the sky above (Aegis, SH-60′s and drones), on the surface (sonobuoys, destroyers, fast frigates and crusiers) and below (subs, sub hunters, mine hunters), protecting the the larger more valuable assets (which, themselves, can move at incredible speeds). All this plays from a master ship movement plan.

        The reason you still speak English, say the Pledge of Allegience and are free is because we do this kind of thing better than anyone else in the world.

        • Gary Church

          The reason you are possessed of such hubris is nuclear weapons- which have made all this expensive junk you think so highly of a goldmine for the defense industry. Our forces have gone unmolested for decades except for the few missiles, speedboats, 16 inch guns, and other random events that have blown up in our faces. You want to wrap yourself in the flag and keep those shareholder checks going out that is fine; I am going to tell the truth about it.

          • Arthur Cooper

            Oh, my bad! I forgot about the “Elfin Magic that keeps us free and helps the rest of the world fend off evil monsters. We kept you free to bitch about us too.

          • Gary Church

            What are you babbling about? Magic? Evil monsters? Go away.

          • Arthur Cooper

            I am one of those people you call “our forces” you are clueless to what we do. We don’t do it in videos or on TV either. We don’t do it for the money either.

          • Gary Church

            All I know about you is from your comments and you seem to be involved in the gambling industry and are a conservative- which makes me not really give a damn about anything you have to say. You have something to say besides “bitch” about me then go ahead but I bet that is all you can do.

          • Gary Church

            I did it for 23 years. Stop playing the hero and waving the flag while “bitching” at others. Thanks.

          • thehotfinger

            You think nuclear weapons made conventional deterrence obsolete? Are you lost old man, do you need help remembering where you live?

          • Gary Church

            “Most bullies are cowards, but they are also predators, and like a dog they can sense weakness and fear from a mile away.”

            Don’t be that way.

          • thehotfinger

            I am flattered that you would quote me, but I fail to see the point. Are you suggesting that my jib amounts to bullying?

  • hokie_1997

    It looks like MQ-8C max payload is around of 300 lbs – which really isn’t all that much when you consider:

    - Sonobuoys weigh about 30 lbs each.
    - Hellfire missiles weigh 100 lbs each.
    - APS-153 radar weighs about 150 lbs.
    - A dipping sonar and reeling machine weigh around 400 lbs.
    - A lightweight torpedo weighs 800 lbs.

    Now consider that an MQ-8C appears to have about the same ‘footprint’ as an MH-60R. Meaning you need to take off a Romeo to put one of these things on.

    So… until they come up with really lightweight sensors, I just don’t see much utility in the MQ-8C. If I was a CO, I’d rather have the Romeo.

    • Arthur Cooper

      The “Romeo” is a great choice. Gotta love that HellFire too!

    • Gary Church

      “Lessons learned are that no single weapon systems can do it all, and we
      rarely end up using weapons systems exactly in the manner that we
      intended.”

      I read some of your posts. A couple fries short of a happy meal….that was great.

      I was a helicopter mechanic and this OH-58 robot is not impressing me at all. K-Max on the other hand is really impressive. Huge payload and far easier to maintain. But then…..I am not an LCS or surface warfare fan either. I like the idea of a huge state subsidized merchant marine fleet. 1000 foot flat deck ships with a percentage serving and the rest in reserve- and making money. And the same with an airliner fleet. Make do with whatever these “platforms” can be loaded with and launch. The strictly military machines in the mix are more difficult to decide on. P-8 looks like it will work- pretty expensive though. I would think submarines are survivable (as my comment with picture indicates). My little brain tells me drones and missiles are going to battle it out and decide the matter before all these grand plans concerning moving over the surface of the ocean happen. My two cents.

  • GeorgeWoodman

    I am going to order one of these babies….

  • PolicyWonk

    I’m quite sure the Navys Inspector General was aware of the MQ-8C when it published its report that outlined their concerns that the LCS wouldn’t be able to survive the missions its commanders were likely to send it on.

    While LCS is comparatively cheap if you compare it to either a Burke or Zumwalt-class destroyer, it is hugely expensive when compared to other navies ships in the same size class (which explains why all other interested navies have walked away), even when you include mission packages in the other navies variants. These other naval LCS-sized variants include full military sea frames, heavier base armament, stealthy designs, and mission packages for 1/3 less than the cost of LCS.

    The LCS cheerleading squad claimed that LCS has an over-the-horizon attack capability because of its choppers – which is only partially true. But we all know that in a truly contested battle-space the LCS’s choppers aren’t likely to last very long.

    Betting the LCS mortgage on the MQ-8C (with its 1-ton maximum load, +/-, which means it can’t carry much ordnance, or have much endurance) isn’t likely to be give you very good odds, especially if a real naval adversary is in the area: because it might not have a home ship to return to – let alone survive (for example: if its attacking a swarm of speed boats – all those boats need is a shoulder-fired AA missile similar to the Stinger to remove the threat) the engagement.

    That said – these drones, and the USMC’s use of the K-MAX for resupply, have demonstrated their usefulness. Its just another tool in the box that any ship of reasonable size can leverage.

    In short – any help the MQ-8C provides to LCS is incremental at best.

    • ycplum

      Because the Fire Scout has no crew, it has a good endurance – 5 hours fully loaded. For asymetrical warfare (or anti-piracy patrols), a i-ton ordinance is good enough. However, I agree with you about it being too light in a stand up fight. It could carry two missiles and fly nap of the earth, but I suspect its communications will give it away.
      I do agree with your overall conclusion. There are just some fundamental problems with the LCSs that needs to be addressed first.

  • Lazarus

    LCS will remain no better than a coast guard cutter until the Navy gets serious about up-arming the ship, giving it a fuel/stores/weapons “plug” and adding some additional sensors (towed array sonar). LCS could be a Perry successor with these additions. As to firescout, it has been on the drawing board/test phase longer than the old DASH (drone antisubmarine helicopter) and has little more to show for the efforts expended. It’s hard to believe the Navy had a working (albeit with problems), armed UAV over 45 years ago, and we still cannot make firescout work as advertised.

    • ycplum

      Actually, the LCS does have a towed array system. Unfortunately, the last I heard, it doesn’t work. : (

    • Gary Church

      Not as good as a Coast Guard Cutter; we would never put that much horsepower in a ship. It is a huge waste- when you go over twenty something knots you have to start doubling the power for every couple extra knots of speed. You can’t use the speed in heavy seas anyway. The speed is really the dead giveaway that this thing is junk. It is not that important anymore (no more crossing the “T”) and the machinery and fuel required take up all that space you need for other stuff- which is why the LCS does not have much weaponry and is probably truly miserable for the crew.

  • ycplum

    Personally, I think there are some fundamental structural issues and system integration issues that needs to be worked out with the LCS. I always envisioned a few Fire Scouts on the LCS.

  • David K. Frazee

    to call this a model bump from B to C is totally disingenuous, it is a totally different helicopter with a higher price along with its higher capabilities.. What’s next?? The “D” Model based on a UH-60 Blackhawk?

    • Gary Church

      Blackhawk does not have the stuff for operating at sea; that is why they call it a Seahawk. I doubt this thing has much anti-corrosion or marine features either, which will make it harder to maintain and have a shorter service life. Helicopter drones are kind of mismatched; they require alot of maintenance. What you want is vertical take-off Harrier-like robots; don’t have to worry about killing pilots like we did with Harriers. Not to mention that anything going a hundred knots is ridiculously easy to shoot down. Just like anything big on a flat ocean is ridiculously easy to sink with an anti-ship missile. The future is the submarine drone with waterproof hatches on intakes and exhausts that pops out of the water, flies around like a little fighter, and sinks to be recovered at the end of a mission. Completely impractical with a manned aircraft but completely doable with a drone. These converted helicopters are a gimmick and a waste of time. K-MAX would be useful operating off larger ships….but not this useless toy boat.