The MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) has flown more than 3,000 hours in support of operations worldwide. In 2010, Fire Scout scored its first drug bust during a test flight from USS McInerney (FFG 8), netting 60 kilos (approximately 132 lbs.) of cocaine. Since then, Fire Scout has been deployed aboard ships and to Afghanistan.
For aerial reconnaissance, a UAV offers benefits such as lower costs, increased safety for the crew, and increased portability.
“A rotary-wing UAV is mobile and can be launched from a small deck. It’s very portable,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Hinkle, an SH-60B Seahawk pilot who recently went on a Fire Scout det. as an air vehicle operator—the pilot of a UAV.
“Fire Scout’s primary job is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR),” he said. “With the Fire Scout operating from the deck of a ship you get a mobile, flexible platform with less operational restrictions and it doesn’t have a long commute—sometimes 30 minutes or less.”
Although there are fixed-wing UAVs that can fly more than 20 hours, they have to take off from an established runway. If a UAV has to launch from four hours away, it will spend eight hours of a 20-hour mission in transit. If there is a problem along the way, the forces on the ground lose their “eye in the sky.” There can also be issues with using another nation’s airfields or flying a UAV through foreign airspace.
“Starting with the first Navy Reserve detachment which deployed January 2012 aboard USS Simpson (FFG 56), there has been a great deal of support and interest in the Fire Scout from both a reserve leadership and individual standpoint,” said Lt. Cmdr. Eric Jenkins, unmanned aerial systems program manager for Commander, Naval Air Force Reserve. “Though these dets. are composed of a mixture of active-duty, reserve, and government contractor personnel, a majority of the positions are filled by mobilized reservists. In fact, the det. aboard USS Klakring (FFG 42) was the only one that did not have any reservists aboard.”
According to Jenkins, three more Fire Scout reserve dets. have been assembled since the initial reserve det. was established. Every position was filled with a volunteer.
On the recent Fire Scout deployment aboard Klakring, a det. from HSL-42 achieved another milestone: a single operator flying two Fire Scouts simultaneously.
“Having two Fire Scouts airborne at the same time enabled us to maintain constant coverage of our target area,” said Lt. Cmdr. Jay Lambert, officer in charge of HSL-42 Det. 2 and the first military air vehicle operator to fly two Fire Scouts at the same time. “We achieved the first tactical data link swap on this mission as well. We also set a new Fire Scout record for 24 hours of continuous target coverage supporting our operational commander. The previous on-target endurance record was less than four hours with a single aircraft.”
Lambert explained that the two aircraft don’t fly in tandem: the first Fire Scout will fly to its assigned area of operations, where it will begin orbiting. A few hours later, the second Fire Scout will launch and head to the target area.
“As the first aircraft burns fuel it becomes lighter and we’ll climb it up an additional 1,000 feet,” he said. “The second aircraft flies in under the first and begins its orbit. The payload operator performs the data link switch transferring camera view from the first aircraft to the second. The operator then flies the first vehicle back to the ship where it is refueled and prepared for the next flight.”
While the Fire Scout offers a high return on investment as an ISR aircraft, the program still has some challenges. Fire Scout’s two biggest problems are a lack of parts support and low payload capacity.
“Fire Scout hasn’t reached the material support date when parts will be stocked and readily available through normal Navy logistics channels,” said Lambert. “When we take a helicopter to sea, we have a pack up kit (PUK) of parts that we expect to need during the deployment. With the Fire Scout, we haven’t developed a complete PUK yet. On Klakring, we had four Fire Scouts and one was specifically for parts. Still, we had an instance where we needed something we didn’t have with us and it took us offline for a week.”
The lack of payload capacity limits the aircraft’s ability to hunt autonomously. One of the sensors aboard is the electro-optical and infrared camera, which has a limited field of view. Over land this isn’t a problem since targets are typically stationary and the operator can send the aircraft to a specific location to begin a visual search. When tracking a moving vessel at sea, however, the Fire Scout must often rely on inputs from other aircraft or ships.
“You can’t search for something at sea with a Fire Scout unless you know where to look,” said Lambert. “We can use the ship’s radar within its range, but outside that radius, it’s like looking through a straw.”
The reason Fire Scout doesn’t have its own sensors is a function of the aircraft’s size and fuel capacity.
“If you add a 200-pound radar, you have to take away 200 pounds of fuel,” said Hinkle. “This has a significant impact to the maximum flight time.”
The Navy is already testing an upsized Fire Scout, the MQ-8C, based on a larger helicopter capable of carrying a larger sensor suite.
In Afghanistan, a Fire Scout det. composed of six reservists and more than 20 contractors from Northrop Grumman has provided ISR support to U.S. and coalition forces since 2011.
“Our challenges included setting up a functioning forward operating location with a very long logistics chain,” said Stephen Henderson, Northrop Grumman site lead. “Building up the site from just a patch of dirt to an efficient ISR and maintenance facility took some determination and hard work.”
Having the long lead time on parts and supplies was another challenge, but this was mitigated with good planning and communication. Incorporating a mix of experienced and novice Fire Scout maintainers made for a great training environment, as experience was attained quickly because of the aggressive flight schedule and requests for support.
“One of the issues we have had to endure in this remote place is receiving and returning supplies and retrograde parts,” said AMCS Larry Maxton, the Fire Scout maintenance chief. “The Fire Scout program office [PMA-266] at NAS Patuxent River is in constant communications with us and will order and ship required parts that we need.”
“The reservists that came out here had various backgrounds in aviation and supply but none of us had Fire Scout experience,” said Maxton. “That is where the schools and Northrop Grumman field service representatives came into play. Our qualifications and experience levels rose rapidly. We had to become qualified as collateral duty inspectors, quality assurance representatives, and plane captains. Depending on our rates, we had to attend a mechanics course or avionics/electrical course for the Fire Scout.”
Fire Scout goes where the action is but, like all unmanned military aircraft, the aircrew stays safe, miles away from danger.
“You wouldn’t want to be in a helicopter loitering above people who don’t like you and are shooting at you. ISR is a perfect mission for Fire Scout,” said Hinkle. “We’ve had a few mishaps with Fire Scout, and each time it was a blow to the program and the people on each detachment. But in each case no one was hurt. We didn’t put the crew in danger and we didn’t have to put rescue personnel in danger, either.”
Work has already started on sourcing two more Fire Scout dets. and a future helicopter unmanned reconnaissance squadron (HUQ-1), which will be dedicated to supporting these mission requirements with a mixture of active and reserve personnel.
As Fire Scout passes each new experimental and operational milestone, the future of the program is becoming clearer and the focus is shifting toward transitioning the platform to the fleet.
Chief Lovelady is a public affairs officer with Commander, Naval Air Force Reserve.