MELBOURNE, Australia ― The U.S. Navy has for the first time used a UAV to provide over-the-horizon targeting information and damage assessment for a missile fired from onboard a ship.

In an exercise off Guam on Aug. 22, the littoral combat ship Coronado fired an RGM-84D Harpoon Block 1C missile that successfully struck a surface target at significant distance beyond the ship’s visual range, according to a U.S. Navy news release.

The release said a Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout drone and a Lockheed Martin MH-60S Seahawk helicopter, both part of Coronado’s rotary-wing air detachment, provided targeting support for the Harpoon missile.

Speaking to Defense News, the commander of the Navy’s Task Force 73, Rear Adm. Don Gabrielson, said the Coronado’s MH-60S and MQ-8B used radar, electro-optical systems and other sensors to locate the target, pass targeting information back to the ship via data link to refine the firing solution, monitor and assess the missile, and then carry out damage assessment on the target. He noted that this is the first time the U.S. Navy has done so.

The pair of MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopters onboard the Coronado are fitted with the Telephonics Corporation’s AN/ZPY-4(V)1 multi-mode radar along with the FLIR Systems Brite Star II day-and-night electro-optical turret with a laser-target designator, and they are the first radar-equipped Fire Scouts to deploy onboard the LCS.

This is the second time the Coronado has fired a Harpoon missile, with the ship firing one in July 2016 during the Rim of the Pacific exercise prior to its arrival in Singapore for rotational deployment. The missile was fired as part of a validation program for the missile mounting, and it did not hit its target that time.

The Coronado is nearing the tail end of its one-year rotational deployment to Singapore that started in October last year. Singapore has agreed to eventually host up to four LCS vessels at its Changi Naval Base on a rotational basis, and Gabrielson has hailed the Coronado’s ongoing deployment as “successful from the perspective of both operations and sustainment” in a region that has “over 50,000 islands in the arc from the Philippines to India.”

According to Gabrielson, some of the highlights of the year include the demonstration of the LCS expeditionary maintenance capability when it carried out a preventive maintenance availability at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and taking part in coordinated counter-piracy patrols with the Philippines.

Gabrielson told Defense News that following exercises off Guam, the Coronado will head to Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the next month, where the ship will continue training and interacting with those countries’ respective navies and personnel.

The flexibility built into the LCS design was also touched on by Gabrielson, who noted that the “modularity will be really important in the future to keep the platform relevant.” The LCS is designed to carry out a variety of missions using different mission modules that will be driven by requirements.

This is especially pertinent in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region with its various maritime security challenges, and Gabrielson expects that with “the modularity in systems and people, the ship is going to appear to be proficient in many different techniques and tools, and is an important capability to maintain the security in the region”.

Looking forward, Gabrielson confirmed that the end of 2018 will see two LCS vessels in Singapore on rotational deployments for the first time, with both to be drawn from the Independence-class trimarans that were assigned to the West Coast in the wake of a 2016 LCS review. Five Independence-class ships have been commissioned into service, with three other ships currently being fitted out, another three being built by Austal and a further three on order.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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