In mid-2019 the U.S. Navy declared the MQ-8C Fire Scout helicopter UAVs had achieved IOC (initial operational capability). In other words, ready for regular use on the LCS (Littoral Combat Ship). The navy already has nineteen MQ-8Cs but has more on order and will have 38 by 2021. Each of the new MQ-8Cs will cost $18 million fully equipped.
The MQ-8C made its first flight in October 2013. This first MQ-8C was quickly created by having the mechanical and software components (that make a manned helicopter into a UAV) from an 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 simple sounding concept actually worked but that was followed by six years of developing and testing software as well as mechanical modifications to the airframe. The navy found the MQ-8C could be armed (with 70mm APKWS laser-guided missiles) but decided to concentrate on an unarmed model that specialized in surveillance and reconnaissance. As a result, max endurance of the 8C is 12 hours (or more, depending on payload), max range from the controller is 270 kilometers, cruise speed is 207 kilometers an hour (max 270), max ceiling is 4,900 meters (16,000 feet) and max payload is 1.3 tons. Much of the payload is usually fuel, which explains the high endurance. Endurance is also limited by high temperatures and can be as low as 10 hours because of that.
The first MQ-8C was supposed to enter service in 2016 but that was delayed so there could be more field testing from ship and land bases, and perfecting modifications to the design. The MQ-8C entered limited (IOC testing) service in 2018. Initially, the MQ-8Cs will serve on LCS and frigate type ships. By the time IOC was reached, the two prototypes and 17 pre-production MQ-8Cs had flown over 360 sorties and spent about 550 hours in the air. In addition to reconnaissance and surveillance, the MQ-8C can also carry cargo.
MQ-8C was 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 was 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 ships (for landings and takeoffs). Navy MQ-8Bs Fire Scouts completed months of successful use on a frigate (in both the Atlantic and Pacific) and were also in action over Libya and Afghanistan. However, the small size of the MQ-8B 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.
The smaller MQ-8Bs entered service in 2009 and have spent over 13,000 hours in the air. Their 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 planned to equip LCS/frigates and destroyers with one or two MQ-8Bs but dropped those plans when the MQ-8C demonstrated much better performance. The navy currently has 23 MQ-8Bs in service out of 30 purchased. The remaining MQ-8Bs will be assigned to LCS type ships and used until they wear out.
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 was tested using the Griffin (a 16 kg/35 pound guided missile with a range of 8,000 meters) and the 11.4 kg (25 pound) APKWS (based on the World War II era 70mm unguided rocket) with a range of 6,000 meters.
The MQ-8C could carry heavier weapons, like the 48.2 kg (106 pounds) Hellfire missile as well as heavier and more capable sensors. The navy went with the new generation of sensors. In 2016 the navy selected the Italian Osprey AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar for its MQ-8C. The Osprey radar is lightweight (50 kg/110 pounds) and uses small flat panels on the sides of the aircraft instead of a rotating radar in a dome underneath the aircraft. The three flat panels give the Osprey radar 360 degree coverage. Osprey is more reliable because it has no moving parts at all. The AESA radar was so successful that it was decided to concentrate on unarmed MQ-8C specializing in maritime surveillance. The AESA radar was also effective on land as it can detect vehicles. MQ-8C can quickly determine the GPS location of anything the radar detects and transfer that information to nearby warplanes or ships so targets can be attacked. The AESA radar is particularly good at detecting the small armed speed boats the Iranians like to use.
Since the 1990s AESA radars have become standard for most new aircraft and upgrades for older aircraft. As AESA systems have gotten smaller and lighter, they are showing up more often in UAVs. AESA is more reliable and, increasingly, no more expensive than the older mechanical (a small dish that moves around inside a dome) radar. AESA is also easier and cheaper to maintain, which makes a more expensive AESA cheaper, over its lifetime, than a cheaper (to buy) mechanically scanned radar.
AESA type radars have been around a long time, popular mainly for their ability to deal with lots of targets simultaneously, and produce a more accurate picture of what is out there. But for a long time, AESA was also a lot more expensive, and less reliable, than older radar technologies. That has gradually changed. And now more uses are being found for AESA, which has developed into more than just an improved radar. AESA radar consists of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. An AESA radar made the E-8 JSTARS aircraft possible, as it enabled it to locate vehicles moving on the ground. A new, smaller MP-RTIP AESA radar for the RQ-4 UAV can also spot smaller objects on the ground. As a result, with the RQ-4 UAV equipped with AESA, the U.S. Air Force has the option of replacing the elderly E-8 aircraft with large UAVs.
The MQ-8C has digital communications and can share its radar (and other sensor data) with the growing number of navy ships and aircraft also equipped to handle digital data. The success of both models of the MQ-8 has caused the army, which was initially a partner with the Navy in developing the MQ-8, to consider rejoining the program.
The success of the MQ-8B and C, especially the large number of hours flown, has attracted export customers for both models. The navy is building 20 new frigates to complement 35 LCS ships and expects the MQ-8C to do well on both types of ships as well as on larger vessels; destroyers, amphibious ships and even on large carriers because if the high endurance and possible use in ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare).