The Navy has armed its helicopter-like, vertical take-off-and-landing MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aircraft with laser-guided rockets to bring new attack possibilities, extend offensive strike range and improve ship-based command and control for maritime warfare.
The Fire Scout, now deployed on Navy Frigates and Littoral Combat Ships, has test-fired hydra 70 2.75-inch laser-guided rockets—a precision weapon able to pinpoint enemy ships, drones or even submarines close to the surface. Long fired from helicopters, the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons Systems folding-fin 2.75 rockets offer a precision-strike ability smaller than an air-launched Hellfire missile yet still lethal enough to have a substantial impact.
Arming a ship-launched drone with these weapons, with human commanders operating in a command-and-control capacity, introduces new forward attack possibilities in maritime warfare by enabling other ship-launched attack platforms such as MH-60R helicopters to operate at a safer standoff distance. A Fire Scout could, for instance, operate beyond line of sight and, if directed by a human, fire weapons upon enemy shore positions or even small fast-attack boats.
The more than three-thousand pound Fire Scout can fly up to 110 knots at altitudes of twenty thousand feet, to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions; the Fire Scout uses shallow-water countermine sensors called COBRA, for Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis.
A key element of the armed Fire Scout would be to maximize networking, as its Northrop Grumman developers have explained that the drone has operated successfully in autonomous operations with other drones and surface ships. It has been part of the Littoral Combat Ship’s anti-submarine, countermine and surface warfare Mission Packages intended to generate an overall combat effect through a combination of helicopters, drones, sensors, weapons and surface-ship technologies.
An armed, ship-launched drone could dramatically reduce sensor-to-shooter time and give commanders a new rapid-response capability, should reconnaissance operations discover time-sensitive target opportunities.
Land-launched drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper or the Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle have been armed for many years, as they can easily be operated from ground-based command-and-control facilities. Performing moving command and control at sea can of course introduce new challenges, yet the Navy is making rapid progress integrating more drones with its surface fleet. The service is even engineering small drone headquarters onboard aircraft carriers to leverage the added mission possibilities afforded by drones. There is also a continued ability for airborne command and control, meaning a manned Navy helicopter could likely operate a forward drone while sustaining connectivity with a host ship. Army Apache and Kiowa helicopters, for example, can already control the flight path and sensor payload of nearby drones, a technical capacity in development now for many years which brings new tactical dimensions to airborne attack. Using this kind of reconnaissance and targeting at sea could, for instance, integrate Fire Scout unmanned aircraft with surface and even air drones to function as meshed relay “combat” nodes within a larger connected maritime warfare network.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.