When a group of pirates in the Indian Ocean took hostages aboard the merchant ship Irene SL early last year, they hardly suspected that a 24-foot unmanned helicopter would soon be watching their every move.
The MQ-8B Fire Scout, still a newish tool in the U.S. Navy’s inventory, allowed the crew of the frigate Halyburton to observe the Irene with an advanced radar and forward-looking infrared sensors, gleaning information that soon helped rescue 13 people from the Greek-flagged merchant vessel.
The Irene counterpiracy mission “stood out in my mind of really what Fire Scout brings to the table,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer Stephen Diets, who deployed with Halyburton as the ground government flight representative, as well as the enlisted air vehicle operator.
First deployed in 2009, the MQ-8B, a modified Schweizer 333 commercial helicopter, has fueled the Navy’s appetite for maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The service owns 30 Fire Scouts, including seven research and development airframes. They continue to be deployed aboard frigates, and officials are mulling a request to double the hours the unmanned aircraft serve with special operations forces in Afghanistan, from 300 to 600 hours per month.
Meanwhile, the Navy has an eye on the future. On April 23, the service ordered the first eight MQ-8C aircraft, a variant that essentially puts Fire Scout guts in a helicopter with more range and payload. The sole-source, $262.3 million contract went to Fire Scout manufacturer Northrop Grumman, which will install systems and avionics on a Bell 407 airframe.
Diets, who flew Halyburton’s Fire Scout for 438 hours during a seven-month deployment in and around the Gulf of Aden, said the bigger variant shows how the Navy is “moving forward with greater capability” in maritime ISR.
“With the increases that the Charlie [MQ-8C] brings to us — distances, data link-wise and payload-wise,” the senior CPO said, “that is a huge benefit over and above what the Fire Scout can do now, because we don’t have that payload area inside the current Bravo [MQ-8B].”
George Vardoulakis, Northrop’s vice president for tactical unmanned systems, said using an existing airframe simplifies the development of the C variant, but it’s not as simple as just plugging the Fire Scout’s systems into a Bell 407. Vardoulakis said the nearly 35-foot-long 407 will be modified to carry more fuel, land safely aboard ship and more.
He said Northrop knew there would be a demand for a longer-endurance unmanned vertical lift ISR platform, so the company “did a very comprehensive study of all known manned aircraft in that medium-range, medium-scale kind of capability,” an effort dubbed Fire-X.
“We fell in love with the Bell 407, so we partnered with Bell and created this Fire-X in about a year, and we started flying it” in December 2010, he said. “So, over the course of essentially the next year, the Navy was taking a look at what we were doing from a demonstration standpoint, and they knew that we had essentially transplanted all the MQ-8B hardware.”
Vardoulakis said Northrop never specifically demonstrated the aircraft for the Navy, but service officials paid attention as it expanded the aircraft’s envelope, then pitched it to the Marine Corps and Army last year with demonstrations at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in southwestern Arizona. Northrop paid to use the facilities and the range, and just “started flying,” he said.
Vardoulakis said Fire Scout operators will fly the Charlie exactly the same as the earlier model.
“The only thing we’re doing is changing the performance parameters,” he said.
Deck operations will be different, though. A shipboard detachment typically includes two Fire Scouts, but the MQ-8C will have a larger footprint.
“They’re much larger airplanes than the MQ-8B, so it requires some enhanced or facilitated handling equipment,” Vardoulakis said. “So with the B, we move it on deck just by muscle. We have three guys moving it just by pushing it. This aircraft will actually have a little piece of support equipment that plants onto the skids of the aircraft to move it around the deck so that in high sea states, we’re not putting guys at risk.”
Northrop believes this is the aircraft for the long haul, Vardoulakis said.
“We think it satisfies a lot of their current and future requirements, and we will continue to work toward improving this platform, this weapon system, to meet the Navy’s current and future needs,” he said. “So we definitely believe this program has legs.”
The program has not been without its setbacks. The Fire Scout has had numerous recent issues regarding the reliability of its data links that call into question whether the MQ-8C will inherit reliability problems from its predecessor.
In June 2011, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation, (DOT&E) released a report that slammed the Fire Scout as unreliable in combat situations and good only as a data collector.
Gilmore based his criticisms on reports of a fragile data link aboard the Halyburton and frequent launch delays, stating that the Fire Scout completed only 54 percent of its missions during the deployment.
The Navy countered that the figure was closer to 80 percent, and many of the problems have been fixed.
The program also had a couple of crashes earlier this year. On March 30, the crew of the frigate Simpson tried numerous times to bring a Fire Scout back onboard the ship before giving up and dumping the helicopter into the water off the coast of West Africa so the crew could recover it manually. Just a week later, the Navy lost an MQ-8B in Afghanistan.
Diets defended the performance of the aircraft on Halyburton.
“I know there were issues that we found out with the DOT&E report, but from a maritime UAV perspective, with there not being very many maritime UAVs ... I think the air vehicle did fairly well in some of the mission areas,” he said. “We operated in conjunction with the H-60 [helicopter], so we flew both of them at the same time and used them together where we could.”
Dave Maier, Northrop’s MQ-8B integrated product team lead, said in a statement that the MQ-8C effort will apply lessons from Fire Scout and have a more robust data link that does not add weight to the aircraft.
He also said the recent MQ-8B mishaps weren’t caused by a bad data link between the ground station and the aircraft; rather, the UAV itself suffered a failure.
Diets said the Navy will benefit from sticking with a maritime ISR capability, arguing that a four-hour mission at sea with the MQ-8B is a lot cheaper than using a manned H-60 for the job.
The Navy will have more lessons to take from the program as it moves from operating the Fire Scout aboard other ship classes, such as destroyers, which are made to handle air assets but are set up differently. In time, however, the program will figure things out and the sea service will be better for it, Diets said.
“There’s definitely a lot of lessons learned, and a lot of the lessons are being carried forward for future operations with UAVs,” he said.