The U.S. Navy is creating its first squadron to train and deploy sailors to operate the MQ-8B Fire Scout and MQ-8C Fire-X unmanned helicopters.
The training plans reveal a major role for enlisted drone operators, who’ll operate the larger, faster Fire-X from warships in support of ground-based operations. Still, some hybrid positions — mixing manned and unmanned flight duties — will be for officers only.
Unmanned Helicopter Reconnaissance Squadron 1 will stand up Oct. 1 at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif. It will be a single squadron with three jobs:
Serve as the fleet replacement squadron to train aviators on how to operate both MQ-8 variants and their mission payloads.
Provide littoral combat ships with aviation detachments, or AVDETs.
Provide the rest of the fleet’s surface combatants with unmanned aerial system detachments, or UDETs.
The basics of the squadron were included in OPNAPNOTE 5400, which, along with comments from the Navy, gives the most specific details about Fire Scout operations and deployments to date, including the different roles that officer and enlisted operators will play and what type of missions they’ll fly when sitting at the controls. The Navy has been testing Fire Scout operations on frigates for three years.
AVDET operators will be officers from the MH-60 helicopter community. They’ll deploy on littoral combat ships with both a Fire Scout and an MH-60 onboard, and they’ll fly both aircraft while underway. Only officers fly manned aircraft, so enlisted personnel would not be able to fulfill that role.
However, aviation weapon system operators will operate sensors on both aircraft, while maintainers will keep them operational. AVDETs will fly the MQ-8B variant, which is already in service.
Officers will head to HUQ-1 for Fire Scout training — either as an air vehicle operator or a mission payload operator — right from their manned fleet replacement squadron training. From HUQ-1, they’ll head to either a helicopter maritime strike squadron or a helicopter sea combat squadron to support the LCS.
Enlisted sailors will operate the MQ-8C, a bigger version of the MQ-8B that’s on a fast-track development program, from surface combatants, said Lt. Aaron Kakiel, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces. Enlisted sailors will operate from UDETs, he said, with missions in support of conventional or special operations forces on the ground.
The Fire-X is expected to deploy in 2014.
Training curriculums last no more than seven weeks, rely heavily on computer simulations and will be held at North Island. Fire Scout deployments, however, have all been with Mayport, Fla.-based frigates, and there’s a Fire Scout training facility at nearby Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Kakiel said that the change of coasts is because the first LCS vessels will be home-ported in San Diego and because AVDETs will come from MH-60 squadrons based at North Island. The Navy will use the Jacksonville facility to help maintain proficiencies, and other sites also are being considered for training facilities.