Washington: The Navy will place arming its fleet of Fire Scout drones with a modified Hydra rocket, heralding a new era in unmanned combat for the service.
An armed Fire Scout will dramatically cut the Navy’s kill chain, or time it takes to identify, track and eventually sink an enemy target, says Jan Van Tol, a naval analyst at the Center For Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The unmanned drone can take out fleets of small, fast moving boats favored by drug smugglers and pirates with relative ease, Van Tol pointed out. “I see this primarily as useful for [counterterrorism and] counter-piracy, dealing with “swarms” of small boats,” he said. The armed Fire Scouts will also free up the Navy’s manned helicopters to do other missions, he added.
Weaponized drones have long been the weapon of choice for U.S counterterrorism operations. Begun under the Bush administration, the Obama White House has greatly expanded their use in recent years. But none of these unmanned aircraft have been able to operate from and hit targets at sea.
The Fire Scout will be the first armed drone that can operate entirely in a maritime environment. The armed version will be combat ready by March 2013, according to Fire Scout manufacturer Northrop Grumman. Naval Air Systems Command will handle the weapon integration onto the Fire Scouts. Northrop will provide the hardware needed to fire the weapon from the drone through a $17 million dollar deal struck in September with the Navy, according to a company statement.
The helicopter-like Fire Scout will be outfitted with BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon system. The system is essentially a Hydra 70 rocket tied to a laser seeker that can take out targets on land and, now, at sea. The Marines already use the weapon on their AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters. The new weapon will not affect the Fire Scout’s ability to do do intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, Northrop officials say.
But questions remain on how effective the armed Fire Scouts will be on the open seas. Will the drone’s new fire control and communications system survive in the harsh maritime environment? Will the aircraft be able to handle the demands of an air strike operation? What if Navy personnel lose control of an armed Fire Scout during an air strike? These are just a handful of challenges the Navy faces with this new capability, Van Tol noted.
Pentagon weapons testers have criticized the “fragile nature” of Fire Scout, particularly in its communication and datalinks. The unmanned aircraft failed to take off from Navy decks on a number of occasions during flight tests held in 2009. Those problems were tied to the weak connectivity between the aerial drone and its control systems on Navy ships. Northrop claims to have fixed those problems and says the drone has performed well since those tests.