The latest version of the Northrop Grumman [NOC] Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, the MQ-8C, deployed for the first time aboard the Littoral Combat Ship USS Milwaukee (LCS-5) last month, the Navy said on Monday.

The MQ-8 Fire Scout is the only unmanned helicopter deployed with the Navy and is meant to deliver intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting (ISR&T) capabilities, enhancing situational awareness to extend ship sensor range.

The MQ-8C is working aboard LCS-5 while it supports operations in the 4th Fleet area of responsibility.

“This is a significant milestone in the MQ-8C Fire Scout program. The transition from the MQ-8B to the MQ-8C Fire Scout has brought improved sensors and more than doubles the on-station endurance. Advances in Fire Scout’s capabilities further our successful integration of unmanned platforms at sea and the Navy and Marine Corps unmanned campaign plan,” Capt. Eric Soderberg, MQ-8 Fire Scout program manager, said in a statement.

The MQ-8C variant has a larger payload and endurance that previous models and includes the upgraded Leonardo Osprey AN/ZPY-8 radar, which allows for a larger field of view and range of digital modes, including the ability to automatically track contacts at long ranges at night and in stormy weather conditions.

The 8C specifically provides over 10 hours of endurance and a range of over 1,000 nautical miles Northrop Grumman said this allows for adaptable mission sets like real-time over-the-horizon targeting. It uses a Bell Textron [TXT] 407 commercial aircraft airframe that the company said lowers lifecycle costs.

“With the ability to operate from a range of surface ships, MQ-8C Fire Scout is a powerful platform that allows the U.S. Navy to increase the detection and tracking of targets through its onboard sensors and integration with manned assets,” Lance Eischeid, director of the Fire Scout program at Northrop Grumman, said in a statement.

The Navy said Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 22, Detachment 5 will use the MQ-8C and an embarked Sikorsky [LMT] MH-60S Seahawk helicopter for counter-narcotics operations.

The unmanned aircraft “will identify targets of interest and refine surveillance data of existing targets of interest, allowing for enhanced capabilities for counter illicit drug trafficking missions,” the Navy said.

Cmdr. Brian Forster, commanding officer of Milwaukee, called the Fire Scout a force multiplier.

“I am very excited of the team I have onboard which has already, and will continue to, demonstrate how manned and unmanned assets can work together to effectively achieve the mission.,” he said.

The Navy said the MQ-8C will also deploy to the Western Pacific later this year.

The MQ-8C was designed by a joint Northrop Grumman-Bell team. 

The first MQ-8C was delivered to HSC-22, the first East Coast Squadron to use them, in 2020. The Navy procured 38 of the aircraft, with no further procurements planned (Defense Daily, Sept. 23, 2020).

Also, in 2020, the Navy said it was planning to study what weapons could be placed on it in the future (Defense Daily, Feb. 14, 2020).

In early 2021 the Navy issued a request for information to start analyzing options to replace and succeed the MQ-8B/C Fire Scout and Seahawk helicopters. The new system is expected to reach initial operational capability in the mid-2030s, when the current aircraft start racing the end of their service lives (Defense Daily, Jan. 29, 2021).