The U.S. Navy has sent drone helicopters into combat over Libya, a major advancement for a sea service that previously was reluctant to embrace robotic systems.
MQ-8 Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, apparently flying from an American warship, have joined British and French attack helicopters in the escalating air campaign targeting long-time Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, who has brutally attacked rebels controlling the eastern half of the country.
Since 2009, the Navy has deployed a small number of surveillance-optimized MQ-8s aboard Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates in the eastern Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Three Navy Fire Scouts are supporting NATO forces in northern Afghanistan.
Technically, the MQ-8, built by Northrop Grumman, is still in development. To the Navy, the last three years of combat deployments represent “operational testing.”
The first evidence to outsiders that the 24-foot-long VTUAVs were also in action over Libya was when one of them crashed. On June 21, Libyan state television broadcast what it claimed were images an Apache attack helicopter, presumably British, shot down by pro-Gadhafi forces 85 miles east of Tripoli.
Royal Air Force Wing Commander Mike Bracken, a NATO spokesman, was quick to counter the regime’s assertion. The wreckage, he said, was from a “drone helicopter was performing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over Libya to monitor pro-Gadhafi forces threatening the civilian population.”
Unnamed NATO sources told reporters the drones were MQ-8Bs. The only other major VTUAV in service with a NATO nation is the Boeing A160 Hummingbird, used by U.S. Special Forces.
In theory, Fire Scouts can be flown from any warship with a flight deck and sufficient space and power for the aircraft’s control and data-link systems and operators, although in practice the Navy has only deployed MQ-8s aboard Perry-class frigates. The frigates were meant as surrogates for the Littoral Combat Ship, which is designed to be the MQ-8′s primary carrier but has been delayed by design and construction problems. The LCS features a large flight deck, hangar space for several helicopters and a mission-control room with ample power and space for drone-control systems.
USS Freedom, the Navy’s first in-service Littoral Combat Ship, embarked an MQ-8 during its initial trials on the Great Lakes nearly three years ago. Freedom’s crew had high hopes for the LCS-VTUAV team.
“It will fly eight-hour missions,” Commander Don Gabrielson, Freedom‘s captain, said of the Fire Scout, “which in practical terms means it extends out surveillance range well beyond 100 nautical miles. [The MQ-8 is] able to fly out 100 nautical miles and stay there five to six hours.”
That ability is integral to the LCS’ design concept. The 3,000-ton-displacement vessel is lightly armed and armored for its size. The Navy always intended LCS to function as a “mothership” for airborne, seaborne and underwater robots, rather than a traditional warship. “The reason we have remote operated vehicles is to take the risk away from the sailor and ship,” said Commander Kris Doyle, the executive officer under Gabrielson.