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Navy Arms, Upgrades Fire Scout UAS

by Kris Osborn on June 10, 2014

FireScoutArmedThe Navy is adding weapons and a new maritime search radar to Fire Scout drone, a helicopter-like vertical take-off UAS now conducting tests aboard the Littoral Combat Ship, service officials said.

The weapons being added to the Fire Scout are part of a program that fires laser-guided 2.75 inch, folding-fin rockets called Advanced Kill Precision Weapons System, or APKWS. Using laser guidance to paint and pinpoint targets for the Fire Scout, APKWS was able to conduct successful land-based test firings, said Capt. Patrick Smith, program manager for multi-mission tactical unmanned air systems.

“We’ve demonstrated an ability to designate and shoot APKWS from Fire Scout. The next-step is ship based testing,” Smith said.

Ship testing, however, is on hold due to ship availability, Navy officials said.

The live-fire testing for APKWS and Fire Scout took place at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif. The Navy is considering having the Fire Scout MQ-8B fire APKWS rockets over the sea sometime in the future, he added.

In fact, while over-the-sea APKWS testing is uncertain for the MQ-8B, the Navy is planning to test APKWS on its newer, larger variant of the Fire Scout, the MQ-8C, in 2015, service officials said.

Meanwhile, a new radar, slated to deploy on the Fire Scout aboard the USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) in 2015, will greatly extend the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, range of the aircraft, Smith explained.

The existing electro-optical and infrared cameras on the Fire Scout have a range of six-to-ten miles, whereas the new maritime radar will be able to find targets at ranges out to 80 nautical miles, Smith said.

The radar, which can bring a ten-fold increase in surveillance range to the ship, is a commercial product built by a firm called Telephonics, Smith said.

The Navy is currently testing the radar on the MQ-8B Fire Scout at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md.

“The maritime search radar is not oriented specifically toward ASW (anti-submarine warfare) but it does have capability against smaller targets,” Smith said.

The Fire Scout is also slated to receive a new mine-detection sensor for littoral waters by 2017 called the Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis, or COBRA, Smith said.

Detecting mines with the Fire Scout in order to keep the LCS and its crew at a safe distance is COBRA’s primary function, however it will also be able to detect submarines near the surface, Smith said.

“We maintain surface surveillance capability, so if there is an acoustic detection Fire Scout would be able to confirm that it was surface contact. If there is a submarine on the surface we’d be able to see it,” Smith said.

The Fire Scout has been conducting training missions off the coast of California on board LCS 1, the USS Freedom.  Having a small helicopter detachment able to launch and land off the back of the LCS is a key part of the ships’ strategy for surface warfare, countermine warfare and anti-submarine warfare.

Called HSM-35 for helicopter maritime strike squadron, the helicopter detachment on board the LCS consists of an MH-60R helicopter and the MQ 8B Fire Scout UAS working in tandem to identify and destroy targets.

“The helicopter squadron will be able to provide a persistent over-watch for shipping traffic. The H-60 provided initial surveillance and situational awareness. After they found something, the Fire Scout was able to provide that persistent surveillance capability to the ship and to the squadron,” Smith said.

The helicopter and unmanned aircraft system, working with one another, are designed to extend the range of the shallow-water LCS. They provide ISR, targeting and threat-detection technologies miles away from the ship and its crew, using a data link to send information back to a control station on-board the ship.

The training exercises consisted of launches, recoveries, mock firefighting scenarios and visit board search and seizure operations, Smith explained.

The 31-foot long Fire Scout can fly at airspeeds up to 110 knots and reach altitudes of 20,000 feet; the aircraft weighs 3,150 pounds at its maximum take-off weight and is powered by one Rolls-Royce heavy fuel turboshaft engine, Navy officials said.

“The Fire Scout has an electro-optical/ infrared sensor called Bright Star 2, which has laser range-finding and laser designation,” Smith said.

The MQ-8B Fire Scout can stay up on a mission for up to five hours, Smith added.

Fire Scout also uses Automatic Identification System, or AIS, technology to help locate and identify ships, Smith said.

The Navy currently has 21 MQ-8B Fire Scouts in the inventory, service officials said.

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