May 22, 2013: The U.S. Navy has created its first aviation squadron that includes both manned (eight Seahawk) and ten unmanned (MQ-8B Fire Scout UAVs) helicopters. The new unit (HSL-35 or Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35) will use its aircraft on various warships (LCS for the UAVs and destroyers and cruisers for the Seahawks). These mixed squadrons are the future as far as the navy is concerned.
The 1.5 ton Fire Scout MQ-8B is based upon the Schweitzer 333 unmanned helicopter, which in turn is derived from the Schweitzer 330 commercial lightweight manned helicopter. The MQ-8B has a payload of 272 kg (600 pounds, most of it fuel), a cruising speed of 200 kilometers, max altitude of 6,100 meters (20,000 feet), and endurance of eight hours. The U.S. Navy currently has 27 MQ-8Bs and had planned to acquire another 160 of them. In the last four years the navy Fire Scouts have spent over 4,000 hours in the air while operating off ships or from land bases in Afghanistan. Its already been decided to arm the MQ-8B with the Griffin (a 16 kg/35 pound guided missile with a range of 8,000 meters) and the 11.4 kg (25 pound) 70mm guided missile (based on the World War II era 70mm unguided rocket), with a range of 6,000 meters.
The navy has gone forwards with developing a larger and more powerful version of Fire Scout. Two years ago the navy paid $263 million to have the MQ-8B Fire Scout mechanical and software components, that make a manned helicopter a UAV, moved to the larger Bell 407 helicopter, to produce the MQ-8C. This contract includes delivering eight MQ-8Cs, including two for use as test machines. As a result of this, the original 1.5 ton MQ-8B Fire Scout becomes the 2.7 ton MQ-8C. The MQ-8C has been under development by the same firm that produces the MQ-8B. At the moment, MQ-8C must prove it can get the job done. Otherwise the navy will stick with the MQ-8B.
Proponents of the MQ-8C want a larger model because that would provide more endurance, greater stability in bad weather, and the ability to carry more weapons. The MQ-8B can carry 90 kg (200 pounds) of sensors and weapons. The MQ-8C would be able to carry about five times more. The MQ-8B has an endurance of eight hours and a cruise speed of 200 kilometers an hour. The MQ-8C would have up to three times the endurance and about the same cruise speed.
Earlier this year the navy ordered another six MQ-8C Fire Scout helicopter UAVs, making for 14 on order. The first one is to be delivered next year, and the navy hopes to get 30 for testing on a wide variety of ships. Being a helicopter, Fire Scout has cost and reliability issues compared to fixed wing UAVs. The navy and the Fire Scout manufacturer believe reliability problems will be less of a problem with this new “C” version.
MQ-8C will be ready so quickly because it is using a lot of the MQ-8B technology. The MQ-8C can carry heavier weapons, like the 48.2 kg (106 pound) Hellfire missile. The small size of the MQ-8B has limited its usefulness and proven to be more prone to wear and tear (resulting in more time spent on maintenance and less time ready for action). If the C model proves sufficiently superior then the navy will drop the B model and go with the C version. Note that the standard manned helicopter for ships is the ten ton SH-60 Seahawk. When flying at sea and operating off the back of a warship, size does matter.