The U.S. Navy is moving ahead with development of its MQ-8C helicopter UAV, despite budget cuts. Thus, the new version, the MQ-8C, made its first flight on October 31st. The MQ-8C was created by having the mechanical and software components (that make a manned helicopter into a UAV) from its existing MQ-8B Fire Scout installed in the larger Bell 407 helicopter. As a result the 1.4 ton MQ-8B Fire Scout becomes the 2.7 ton MQ-8C. The navy is buying 8 MQ-8Cs for test and evaluation and, if that is successful, another 20 for regular service. But first the MQ-8C must prove it can get the job done. If there are no problems with flight testing the MQ-8C is supposed to be in service by 2014. 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.
MQ-8C will be ready so quickly because it is using a lot of the MQ-8B technology. While the military has been slow to adopt helicopter UAVs, there is sufficient interest to keep the manufacturers at work on new models. The navy kept Fire Scout when the army dropped it because helicopters are more practical on most navy ships (for landings and takeoffs). Navy Fire Scouts have completed months of successful use on a frigate (in both the Atlantic and Pacific) and were recently in action over Libya and Afghanistan. However, the small size of the MQ-8B has limited its usefulness and proved to be more prone to wear and tear (resulting in more time spent on maintenance and less time ready for action). 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, and that’s the main reason for the MQ-8C.
Meanwhile, a detachment of three MQ-8Bs returned from Afghanistan in September after spending 28 months there. The MQ-8Bs operated in the less violent north, where they flew over 5,000 hours in support of NATO troops. Most of these hours were for reconnaissance and surveillance, but on some missions they acted as a communications relay for ground forces that found radio range limited by the deep valleys troops sometimes had to operate in. The MQ-8Bs flew an average of 60 hours a month while in Afghanistan. The MQ-8Bs were there because NATO needed all the UAVs it could get and because the Navy wanted the MQ-8B to get more air time. Since it entered service in 2009, the MQ-8Bs have spent over 10,000 hours in the air. The time in Afghanistan was valuable not just for getting more air time but also working out any problems encountered while flying in a hostile land environment. The U.S. Navy has been equipping frigates and destroyers with one or two MQ-8Bs. The navy currently has 27 MQ-8Bs.
The 1.4 ton MQ-8B is based on the 1.5 ton Schweitzer 330 manned helicopter. The MQ-8B can carry 90 kg (200 pounds) of sensors and weapons. It has an endurance of 8 hours and a cruise speed of 200 kilometers an hour. The MQ-8B can carry 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 MQ-8C can carry heavier weapons, like the 48.2 kg (106 pounds) Hellfire missile.
The U.S. Navy is also spending $33.3 million to have the RDR-1700 maritime-surveillance radar installed on 9 of its MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter UAVs. The contract stipulates that the work be completed by the end of 2013, as the navy wants to use this new capability as soon as possible. The 32 kg (71 pound) RDR-1700 operates in a 360 degree mount underneath the helicopter. This is a SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) system that shows objects on the water in a photorealistic way. The max range of this SAR is 80 kilometers, although for the most detailed resolution max range is 25 kilometers. SAR can see through clouds and even sand storms (which sometimes blow out over coastal waters). The RDR-1700 can also be used over land for terrain mapping or for weather detection. The software enables the radar to track up to 20 surface or aerial objects at a time. The RDR-1700 would be operated from the ship it took off from and provide longer range search and reconnaissance capability at night and in bad weather. This would be particularly useful in the Persian Gulf (where Iran uses a lot of small but heavily armed speed boats) or off the Somali coast (where pirates like to operate at night with multiple speedboats stalking a larger ship).