MQ-8C Cleared for Operations

 - July 10, 2019, 2:47 AM
An MQ-8C undergoes trials at the Webster Field Annex, part of the Patuxent River test and evaluation center in Maryland. (photo: U.S. Navy)

The Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout achieved initial operational capability on June 28, the U.S. Navy announced on July 8. With this hurdle cleared, the rotary-wing unmanned air system (RWUAS) can begin fleet operations and training.

“This milestone is a culmination of several years of hard work and dedication from our joint government and industry team,” said Captain Eric Soderberg, the U.S. Navy’s Fire Scout program manager. “We are excited to get this enhanced capability out to the fleet.” The program is managed by the Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems office (PMA-266) in Naval Air Systems Command.

The MQ-8C is based on the Bell 407 airframe, and uses systems developed for the smaller, Schweizer 333-based MQ-8B, which currently serves aboard U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) in the 5th and 7th Fleets. The role of the Fire Scout is to provide reconnaissance and precision targeting support for ground, sea and air forces.

Porting the system into a larger airframe permits heavier payloads and increases time-on-station to up to 12 hours, depending on sensor fit, compared with around eight hours for the MQ-8B. In addition to the nose-mounted electro-optic sensor ball, the MQ-8C will be equipped with a radar featuring a range of digital modes, including weather detection, air-to-air targeting, and ground moving target indication (GMTI). The RWUAS is intended to work closely with manned MH-60 Seahawk helicopters.

IOT&E trials for the MQ-8C were conducted in 2018 aboard the Littoral Combat Ship USS Coronado. (photo: U.S. Navy)

Shipborne operations began in December 2014 aboard the destroyer USS Jason Dunham and went on to include operations from an LCS (USS Montgomery) in April 2017. Initial operational test and evaluation trials were conducted in June 2018 by VX-1 aboard the LCS USS Coronado, sailing off southern California. The trials included co-operative missions with MH-60S Seahawks to assess the operational effectiveness of the pairing and to evaluate the processes of operating and maintaining both platforms simultaneously.

Currently, the MQ-8C has amassed more than 1,500 flight hours in over 700 sorties. The Navy intends to purchase 38 MQ-8Cs, following on from 30 of the smaller MQ-8Bs, and the first operational deployment aboard an LCS is slated for 2021.