Discussions of Navy unmanned systems tend to focus on the MQ-4C Triton, carrier-launched fixed-wing programs, and undersea vehicles. In fact, the Navy has flown the rotary-wing MQ-8B Fire Scout almost 16,000 hours, with more than 8,000 operational flight hours from frigates and 5,000 hours in Afghanistan. This extensive operational experience includes missions such as maritime reconnaissance, counterpiracy, overland surveillance, and special-operations support.
Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 35 (HSM-35) has had a composite MH-60R Seahawk/MQ-8B Fire Scout detachment deployed with the USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) since November 2014. The Navy should leverage its significant Fire Scout experience, as well as other joint-force initiatives, to make maritime manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) a reality. MUM-T seeks to achieve a technological advantage by combining human decision-making with the benefits of unmanned technology.
To date, HSM-35 has provided four composite manned-unmanned detachments in support of the Fort Worth’s rotational deployment to the Pacific. The detachments’ maintenance personnel are trained to work on both the rotary drone and manned helicopter; pilots are cross-trained to fly both platforms; and enlisted aircrew are trained to effectively employ both sensor suites. In a recent training event, an HSM-35 Fire Scout remotely designated a target for an MH-60 to simulate engaging with Hellfire missiles. The squadron is planning a remotely designated live-fire Hellfire training mission later this year.
As impressive as HSM-35’s accomplishments are, the Navy is lagging behind the Army’s progress in the development of rotary-wing MUM-T. During a 2014 aviation battalion deployment to Afghanistan, drone support contributed to 60 percent of the battalion’s direct-fire missions. In March 2015, the Army established a combined manned-unmanned attack reconnaissance squadron with the 3rd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, flying both Apaches and RQ-7B Shadow unmanned systems. In August 2015, the Army conducted an exercise over South Korea where an MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft system (UAS) streamed data and video directly to the cockpit of an Apache at “extended distances.”
The Army defines the manned-unmanned relationship in terms of “levels of interoperability.” In Level 1, the helicopter indirectly receives data from the UAS. The helicopter receives data directly from the UAS in Level 2. Level 3 allows the helicopter crew to fire UAS weapons. The helicopter crew flies the UAS in Level 4, and Level 5 includes the full spectrum of control. The majority of MUM-T operations take place in Level 1 or Level 2, but the Army has conducted operations at the other levels. By contrast, the Navy’s MH-60/MQ-8B team is limited to what might loosely be considered Level 1, requiring the ship to serve as a conduit for passing drone data to the helicopter.
The Navy should expand rotary interoperability to Levels 2 through 5, in parallel with the development of new unmanned system payloads for electronic support, electronic attack, sonobuoy employment, digital magnetic anomaly detection, and weapons. The MQ-8B’s surveillance capability will soon be improved by the addition of a surface-search radar, while the next-generation MQ-8C will possess increased endurance, payload, service ceiling, and speed. Despite these enhanced capabilities, linking Fire Scout exclusively to the littoral combat ship denies the fleet benefits it could have now.
The Chief of Naval Operations and the Navy’s Director of Air Warfare recently asserted the Navy’s desire to rapidly establish unmanned systems on aircraft carriers. The Navy can learn valuable lessons about operating drones from aircraft carriers by deploying Fire Scout to the carrier while a viable fixed-wing carrier-based unmanned system is being developed. Distributing Fire Scout across more fleet platforms and into carrier air wings will also contribute to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, antisurface warfare, antisubmarine warfare, and electronic warfare.
Looking ahead, full MUM-T interoperability needs to be considered as a future vertical-lift program requirement, and enhanced rotary-wing teaming should be a high priority for the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Unmanned Systems, Frank Kelley. Coordination between the Navy staff’s unmanned systems directorate (OPNAV N99) and other OPNAV resource sponsors, as well as with the Army, will be critical to driving the spiral development of future rotary drone capabilities as a key component of the Department of Defense’s Third Offset Strategy.
Commander Schnappauf is the U.S. Navy Hudson Fellow to Oxford University and former commanding officer of HSM-70.