A fast-growing number of Navy drones are hunting submarines, destroying mines, tracking targets, networking forces and possibly even firing torpedoes from beneath the surface of the ocean.
The number of Navy drones is growing and their range, operational abilities and mission scope are expanding quickly too. For example, undersea drones increasingly draw upon various levels of autonomy to find, track and independently detonate mines beneath the surface. For example, the Navy’s large and medium unmanned vessels are expected to bring new levels of artificial-intelligence-enabled autonomy to maritime warfare through the use of robotic sub-hunting technologies. These vessels will be able to gather, analyze, process and transmit time-sensitive warfare data from the edge of combat point of collection.
Drones that were typically used for point-to-point data link enabled surveillance are now networked across a larger force and able to perform a greater range of functions without requiring human intervention.
The Navy’s strategic effort to optimize attributes unique to human cognition and decisionmaking as well as high-speed computer processing and nearly instantaneous data analysis and transmission has proved successful. The military service aims to achieve an optimal blend of human decisionmaking and artificial-intelligence-enabled computing, synchronizing and connecting the two through manned-unmanned teaming interoperability.
This mission expansion is evident via ongoing efforts to expand the types of operations performed by the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned autonomous helicopter. This unmanned system is capable of conducting countermine operations, long-endurance flights, aerial surveillance and other kinds of maritime anti-surface warfare missions.
Northrop Grumman, which builds the Fire Scout helicopters, is moving quickly on behalf of the Navy to explore the possibility of leveraging the unmanned aircraft’s range, mission endurance and sensor fidelity to support anti-submarine warfare. The MQ-8C Fire Scout is a larger, improved version of the MQ-8B Fire Scout drone, which now flies off of frigates and small surface vessels. The C variant is based upon the configuration of a Bell 407 small utility commercial helicopter. It uses its maritime sensors to hunt for mines, search for enemy submarines and send back real-time video feeds to ships about threats and objects of interest otherwise beyond visual range.
There are many reasons why a Fire Scout should be used for anti-submarine warfare missions. Submarines often come close to the surface of the water for periods of time to maximize connectivity with radiofrequency or GPS signals. Also, submarines linger near the surface communication with ships in the area or use their command and control abilities. An unmanned system can operate for greater periods of time without needing to return to a host ship.
“Fire Scout is right now about an eleven-hour aircraft,” Dan Redman, a project manager for Northrop Grumman, told the National Interest. “Now, if it carries a lot of sonobuoys, we’ll reduce that time quite a bit, but not to the point that we’re not still much better than a manned aircraft.”
Redman said that on a good day, a fully-loaded MH-60 Romeo (MH-60R) can fly up to three hours. But the Fire Scout can fly for over seven hours in an anti-submarine warfare configuration, he said.
The concept draws upon manned-unmanned teaming concepts of operations to combine the range, endurance and sonobuoy-carrying capacity of the Fire Scout with the maneuverable manned MH-60 Ropeo ship-launched SeaHawk helicopter.
“We don’t want to take away capability from a manned platform but supplement the manned platform in a couple of ways to get a better search rate and detection capability,” Redman said.
Northrop Grumman has conducted a demonstration with the Fire Scout “C” model, which is an unmanned Bell 407 helicopter configured for drone operations. During the demonstration, the helicopter used a prototype sonobuoy launcher to drop six buoys to locate an undersea target. The undersea target was towed beneath a boat and detected by Fire Scout-deployed sonobuoys.
The point of this demonstration was to show that the Fire Scout could use its range and endurance to drop and survey sonobuoys in support of manned helicopters, according to Redman. For instance, a manned helicopter can stay closer to a host ship while networked with a forward-positioned Fire Scout that is capable of operating for as long as eleven hours out to ranges of one hundred nautical miles.
“I think 100 miles is where the sweet spot is as far as range,” Redman said. “It allows time to get there and stay on station. I think that fits with the Navy’s conops in terms of where you’d want to be, especially in the Western Pacific. There are places where a ship doesn’t want to get close.”
There is great value in having sustained, long-dwell surface imaging across dispersed areas. Notably, some networked sonobuoys can detect submarine threats beneath the surface at tactically relevant ranges. But this is something that an anti-submarine-equipped Fire Scout would be best positioned to perform.
Unmanned systems operating in high-risk areas or hostile areas allow for manned aircraft and ships to operate at safer stand-off ranges. This might be most helpful during sub-hunting missions as a large sub-hunting manned aircraft could be extremely vulnerable in a high-intensity, high-risk maritime warfare scenario. A Fire Scout might protect the lives of service members while simultaneously helping preserve valuable air assets.
“The Fire Scout can help preserve the life of a manned platform by having it not only fly around doing boring things running through lots of airframes and flight hours to do things that unmanned systems were basically designed for,” Redman said.
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.
Image: Artist’s rendering MQ-8C Fire Scout. Northrop Grumman Photo