skip to Main Content

IN DETAIL: Northrop Grumman positions Fire Scout to meet RAN needs

The Royal Australian Navy is positioning itself to embrace uncrewed systems, with attendant Artificial Intelligence (AI) challenges, right across the board from mine warfare and undersea surveillance to long range Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) for surface ships. While the RAN has already selected its first generation of maritime UAVs, Northrop Grumman believes its MQ-8C Fire Scout UAV will meet Australia’s emergent ISR needs in the future. With the first deployment of Fire Scout into the Indo Pacific now under way, the company has begun positioning the system to meet evolving RAN requirements.

Gregor Ferguson

Northrop Grumman is positioning its MQ-8C Fire Scout Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to compete for future phases of the Royal Australian Navy’s Project SEA 129 Ph.5.

A few weeks ago former Minister for Defence (and now Opposition Leader) Peter Dutton announced that the RAN would buy up to 40 Schiebel S-100 Camcopter Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) UAVs to equip its ANZAC-class frigates and Arafura-class Offshore Patrol Boats under Tranche 1 of SEA 129 Ph.5.

However, the service has maintained that the project will see the Navy’s UAV capability refreshed multiple times over the coming 30 years at an estimated cost of around $1.6 billion, so there are plenty of potential on-ramps for companies who missed out on the first tranche. As the RAN develops both its expertise and its expectations, Northrop Grumman Australia believes the Australian potential for Fire Scout will grow, according to Jake Campbell, the company’s Canberra-based Project Director for Fire Scout.

“Navy has shown a real drive towards uncrewed systems,” he told EX. Indeed, the service’s Warfighting Innovation Navy (WIN) section, which forms part of Navy Capability, released the RAN’s RAS-AI Strategy 2040 late last year – RAS-AI stands for Robotic and Autonomous Systems and Artificial Intelligence and the RAN is determined not to be caught wanting in this emergent area.

The RAN’s principal need at present is for ISR rather than another weapons platform. A mix of Fire Scout and MH-60R Seahawk, using Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T), would be effective in both Anti-Surface vessel and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASuW and ASW) across a wide enough area and long enough range that concealment and counter-targeting by an enemy would become extremely difficult.

Periodic technology ‘refreshes’ would see upgrades (and possibly complete replacement) of the sensor suite and flight control system, leaving the platform largely unchanged.

For that reason, the MQ-8C employs a modular payload concept that can accommodate new payload and sensor combinations such as the US Navy’s AN/DVS-1 Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA) Block II mine warfare system. It can also carry 48 G-sized sonobuoys for Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) work.

With a nominal five-year refresher rate, the window of opportunity re-opens for maritime UAV and payload manufacturers with an RFT around 2026. The MQ-8C Fire Scout that Northrop Grumman will offer for later tranches of SEA 129 is used by the US Navy principally as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platform equipped with the AN/ZPY-8 radar – Leonardo’s Osprey 30 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) sensor – along with the FLIR Systems Inc. BRITE Star II EO/IR sensor and laser rangefinder/designator, and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) to help track and identify surface vessels.

The Fire Scout system has been deployed to the Indo Pacific region for the first time aboard a US Navy Independence-class Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), USS Jackson, which will be based in Singapore for the remainder of this year. The likelihood is that it will take part in exercises, and possibly even operational deployments, alongside RAN ships.

Based on the proven Bell 407 helicopter, itself a derivative of the long-lived Bell 206 JetRanger, the MQ-8C is powered by the 522kW Rolls-Royce M250-C47E engine which bestows an operational take-off weight of about 6,000lb, a cruise speed of about 115kt and a 11-hour endurance when carrying a 300lb payload. Its maximum payload is 700lb, the company says, and it has a service ceiling of about 16,000ft. The system achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in 2019 and the US Navy plans to acquire 38 at present.

The Fire Scout’s ferry range is 1,000nm, though the company claims a maximum operating radius of 150nm – this is due to the range limitations of the Line of Sight Tactical Data Link (TADIL) by which the UAV is controlled and through which it downloads its sensor feed. However, if you add 150nm to the 150-200nm range claimed by Leonardo for the Osprey 30 radar, the ability to integrate AIS data, track up to 1,000 surface contacts and then partially identify some using its Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR) mode, then you have added a significant over-the-horizon surface surveillance capability to whatever surface ship the Fire Scout launched from.

The current concept of operations is that the aircraft would launch, climb to its optimum cruising altitude of about 16,000ft, and then fly out to its operational area. It would remain on station for 8-12 hours, depending on its role equipment fit and mission requirements, and then return to base. The 150nm range limitation may disappear if the company goes ahead with its plan to implement a Satellite Communications (SATCOM) link for the Fire Scout.

Greater range and payload

The MQ-8C is a significant departure from its predecessor, the MQ-8B which is based on the Schweizer 330SP helicopter. The US Navy had 20 MQ-8Bs in service and these are being replaced by the ‘Charlie’.

Although the B-model uses a similar Rolls-Royce engine, the newer ‘Charlie’ model has twice the range and payload, says Lance Eischeid, Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout Project Director for the US Navy. Furthermore, he says, it is based on an airframe/powerplant/transmission combination that is in production and proven over several years in military and civil service, so the platform risks associated with this capability are low.

The Fire Scout has achieved nearly 20,000 flying hours and well over 6,200 sorties from multiple surface ships, most of these by the B-model, so the US Navy has addressed in depth the issues of integrating such a system with a surface warship and of operating it efficiently. The system is integrated with the US Navy’s FFG-7s and DDG51s (Block IIA and later) and the US Coastguard Bertholf-class National Security Cutter, has been deployed aboard the US Navy’s new class of Expeditionary Sea Base (ESB) ships which have large flight decks and hangars, and they will be integrated also with the new Constellation-class FFG-62 guided missile frigates which will start to enter service from 2026.

Looking at future tranches of Project SEA 129 Ph.5, the company says there is a strong argument for a large, robust airframe that can carry whatever payload the user requires to an acceptable range. The MQ-8C can be integrated relatively easily with the RAN’s major fleet units, the ANZAC and Hunter-class frigates, Hobart-class DDGs and the Canberra-class LHDs, says Northrop Grumman. These ships can support a UAV with greater Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) requirements and have the deck and hangar space to operate and support UAVs with more sophisticated payload systems than smaller ships. The company is also exploring a logistics cargo capability using the Bell 407 cargo hook and internal storage bays, says Eischeid.

Aboard the US Navy’s Independence-class LCSs, there is a shortage of separate magazine space so the service hasn’t chosen to arm its MQ-8Cs with offensive weapons. However, the MQ-8Bs have been fully integrated and tested with the 2.75in Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS). This remains an option as does the AGM-114 Hellfire for the MQ-8C if the need arises. The RAN’s 36 MH-60R Seahawks also carry Hellfires.

But the Fire Scout is not a stand-alone system, says Eischeid. One of its key responsibilities is MUM-T – essentially, it is designed to operate in partnership with the US (and Australian) Navy’s MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. In RAN service it would likely be used principally to support force manoeuvre by helping build and maintain Situational Awareness (SA) to help detect and identify surface and submerged targets for an offensive response, and conduct over the horizon targeting, sharing the target information with the mother ship as well as the manned helicopter.

The ability to deploy sonobuoys at a significant distance from a mother ship, with an MH-60R nearby to prosecute contacts with a Mk 54 lightweight torpedo, adds to the ASW capabilities of the ship and the area it can surveil.

The embarked ’footprint’ of a UAV is important. With blades folded the MQ-8C would occupy slightly less real estate on a ship than a manned helicopter – about 35ft x 8 ft with a hangar ceiling height of just under 12ft, says Northrop Grumman Australia, but wouldn’t require the same crew facilities. The embarked crew per UAV would consist, at minimum, of one Plane Captain and one maintainer to support the aircraft, along with the operations crew who actually fly it.

Launch and Recovery of the UAV and then flight and mission management are undertaken by an Air Vehicle Operator (AVO) and a Mission Payload Operator (MPO) working in the ground control station. The launch and recovery phases use one of the UHF/VHF radios on the aircraft and in the ground control system – this is called the Recovery Data Link (RDL).

Once airborne, the operators use the Command and Control (C2) Link to manage the Fire Scout mission. Both the C2 and Payload Data Links can be switched to use the ship’s own Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) as the Primary Data Link (PDL).  Both the SDL and PDL require Line of Sight (LOS) between the aircraft and mother ship; however, if equipped with SATCOM, the C2 and Payload links will no longer need LOS.

The ground control station can be a built-in ship system, says Northrop Grumman, or portable: the US Navy uses its own Mobile Mission Control System (MMCS) and the company’s own Expeditionary Mission Control System or MCSX is also available, and in both cases these systems are tied into the ship antennas. The current typical installation also requires the ship to be equipped with the US military’s UAV Common Automatic Recovery System (UCARS) and TCDL, though installation of an Optical Landing System on the Fire Scout can eliminate the need for UCARS on the ship.

The MCS-X has passed the US Navy trials stage; it takes all of the current functionality of the Fire Scout control system and repackages it into small, portable cases for rapid re-assembly at different locations – this could be aboard different ships or ashore, as the customer wishes.

The Fire Scout technology roadmap includes both SATCOM and Optical Landing and the company is already investing in these capabilities, it says. It is also preparing for the US Navy to adopt Link 16 on Fire Scout which in turn would enable in-flight targeting upgrades (IFTU) of missiles such as the Harpoon Bock II+ ER, Naval Strike Missile (NSM), Future Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) and Maritime Strike Tomahawk (MST).

The RAN is a small service by regional standards but punches well above its weight thanks both to the quality of its training and the high technology it is able to deploy and use. It may take a couple of years for the RAN to refine its understanding of and then its operational requirements for the next generation of maritime UAVs, but the service has already embraced uncrewed technology across several separate mission areas and is committed to doing much more in the future – UAVs is just one of those areas, says Jake Campbell. This is where Northrop Grumman sees its opportunity in the longer term.

Back To Top