Wednesday, October 9, 2019

MQ-8C Fire Scout

The MQ-8C Fire Scout is a helicopter-type unmanned aircraft intended to act as a scout asset for the LCS.  The aircraft is based on the commercial Bell 407 helicopter.  The MQ-8C represents a substantial improvement over its predecessor, the MQ-8B, although the improvements come with drawbacks such as increased size which impacts stealth and survivability.  Let’s take a look at what the MQ-8C can do and how it might be used.

MQ-8C Fire Scout

MQ-8C Fire Scout Specifications (1)
Maximum Speed
135 kts
Cruise Speed
115 kts
Service Ceiling
16,000 ft
Std Day Max Endurance w/ 300 lb Payload
12 hrs
Hot Day Max Endurance w/ 300 lb Payload
10 hrs
Empty Weight
3200 lbs
34.7 ft

Note: Wikipedia cites endurance of 15 hours, max speed of 140 kts, max ceiling of 20,000 ft, a range of 150 nmi (170 mi; 280 km), and a payload capacity of 701 lb.  These claims appear to be largely unsubstantiated and, more importantly, unrelated to each other.  For example, if the claim of 700 lbs payload capacity is true, it would significantly affect the speed and endurance as indicated in the table.  In short, the table values seem much more realistic than the Wiki values.

As of the 2018 GAO annual report, the Navy apparently plans to procure 55 operational units with a program unit cost (production and development) of $46.25M each. (2)  Contracts are being issued as fixed-price, incentive type contracts.  It should be noted that the commercial airframe is being provided to the primed contractor as Government Furnished Equipment and the cost for the airframe may not be included in the GAO unit cost estimate. (2) I’m unable to determine whether that is the case or not.

The somewhat limited procurement quantity impacts CONOPS in that it means that the MQ-8C cannot be considered expendable as there would be few or no replacements.  With 30 or so LCS, there are less than two aircraft per ship.  Thus, the inherent non-stealthy character of the aircraft combined with the need to actively broadcast, thus giving away its location, would seem to severely limit the aircraft’s use to very low threat scenarios.

The acquisition program has been run under an accelerated approach which has bypassed many of the normal risk reduction actions and reviews.  Further, the Navy is acquiring the aircraft totally under low rate initial production (LRIP) status which violates Department of Defense acquisition practices.  LRIP acquisition is limited to 10% of the total acquisition.  No surprise that the Navy is ignoring acquisition practices since they routinely do so.

… the program has yet to demonstrate that its critical manufacturing processes are in statistical control—an approach inconsistent with best practices. (2)

The MQ-8C is being equipped with Leonardo-Finmeccanica’s Osprey AESA radar in a 2-panel configuration which provides a 240 degree field of view.  The unit has a maritime surveillance, small target mode, among other modes.  The radar uses a Line of Sight (LOS) communications procedure and is, apparently, intended to operate at high altitudes to enable longer distance communications (longer LOS).

Operational Considerations

Communications.  The radar’s LOS communications requirement means that in order to achieve useful extended coverage range from the host ship the aircraft must fly high and thus be very visible to enemy detection (the MQ-8C being decidedly non-stealthy) and highly susceptible to destruction (having no speed, maneuverability, or countermeasures).  Alternatively, the aircraft can fly very low and decrease its chance of being detected but then the useful coverage range becomes not much more than the 15-20 mile horizon due to the LOS communications requirement.

How a large, slow, non-stealthy, high flying aircraft will survive long enough in high end combat to perform its function is a mystery that the Navy has not yet explained.  Such an aircraft seems very useful for no-threat scenarios but not viable for high end combat.

Detection.  If equipped with radar, the aircraft will be continuously broadcasting its presence.  Radar is like the flashlight analogy – you can see the flashlight much farther away than the flashlight can see you.  So too, with radar.  While there are claimed low probability of intercept radars, the low probability is accomplished by significantly reducing the radar’s power output.  Unfortunately, significantly reduced power output also means significantly reduced range and capability.  So, the radar user is faced with the choice of either broadcasting at full power to achieve significant range and announcing his presence/location or reducing power which reduces range and capability.

The other sensor option for the MQ-8C is EO/IR sensors.  Being passive, these sensors would allow the aircraft to remain as stealthy as its non-stealthy airframe allows by not broadcasting its location.  This offers some potentially useful tactical possibilities although the data communication back to the host ship still requires LOS which means high altitude or short range.

An alternative mode of operation would be the use of passive EO/IR sensors and low altitude with no data transmissions.  The data would be collected and stored onboard the aircraft for download upon its return to the host ship.  Of course, this would require a degree of autonomy from the MQ-8C in identifying and stealthily maneuvering around threats that does not currently exist.  It would also impose a significant lag in data analysis and would negate any chance of using the aircraft for real time targeting.  Still, it would allow the establishment of general situational awareness.

Risk.  As noted above, the limited acquisition quantities render the MQ-8C decidedly non-expendable.  Unfortunately, as also noted above, the aircraft is non-stealthy and non-survivable which means that to be effective the aircraft must be considered expendable and large numbers of replacement aircraft must be immediately available onboard the host ship.  There is an obvious conflict of requirements, here!

In a war, it is possible that production could be ramped up to the point that the aircraft could be considered expendable.  However, that only solves half the problem.  The more immediate problem would be the number of aircraft available onboard the host ship and the LCS simple doesn’t have the room to carry more than a couple.  Thus, the inexorable conclusion is that the MQ-8C must be considered non-expendable and must be operated under a risk-averse doctrine to avoid having the host ship become ‘blinded’.  This suggests that the Navy’s concept of using the MQ-8C as a long range scout using its radar is not viable.  This is why ComNavOps has repeatedly called for large numbers of much smaller UAVs to fill the scout/surveillance role.


The Navy views the MQ-8C as the key to enabling the LCS as a viable anti-ship threat and yet it is difficult to see how the aircraft can effectively and survivably perform the intended scout/targeting function.  The non-stealthy nature of the aircraft combined with the communications constraints simply preclude any effective tactical utilization. 


(1)Naval Drones website, “MQ-8C Fire Scout”, retrieved 2-Oct-2019,

(2)Government Accountability Office, “Weapon Systems Annual Assessment”, Apr 2018, GAO-18-360SP


  1. "Contracts are being issued as fixed-price, incentive type contracts."

    Nobody asked me, but… the Navy is essentially buying a mature, commercial airframe and asking industry to integrate several known subsystems, which sounds like it should be a Firm fixed price (FFP) contract, or a cost-plus contract for a test prototype(s), with production being FFP.

    Under an FFP contract the Contractor assumes all risk for not meeting cost, schedule, performance targets. Although FPIF contracts sound like FFP contracts, they are totally different.

    Unless we know what the share line is, and what the incentive structure looks like, this could be a horrendous deal for the tax payer.

    It is entirely possible to build a fixed price incentive fee (FPIF) contract that provides large incentives for meeting easy cost, schedule, performance goals, while making the government bear a disproportionate risk. Example: a 60/40 share line means the government eats 60% of the risk (cost, schedule, performance).

    We also do not know what the ceiling price is.

    Finally, program offices can sneak in all sorts of waste into the option lines options in the contracts too.

    Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall penned several excellent articles on contract structures like this one:


  2. here is an article comparing the Bell helicopter with a competitor:


  3. Wow, so a regular "stock"? Bell 407 goes for about for $4 million. Let's say a fully loaded one with all the bells and whistles goes for $10 million.....a MQ-8C goes for a cool $46 million. The air frame, engine, rotors, transmission, probably quite a few subsystems are certainly stock off the regular 407, seems a bit steep for a radar, better comms and unmanned $46 million a copy, it's not cheap, it's damn not expendable.

    1. To be clear, the $46M is the total unit cost which consists roughly of $23M production cost and $23M R&D cost. The GAO document has the exact numbers.

  4. Mq-8c? C? What is in common with Mq-8b? Jesus its huge.

    Or this another super hornet style program?

    1. Not much in common. It's a completely different airframe.

    2. Not huge. The MQ8C is smaller than the SH60 Seahawk types which are the standard naval helicopters.
      While the Firescouts are vulnerable at high altitudes to missiles , Im wondering if they could drop suddenly at high G as missile approach ? They would have flares and anti- IR countermeasures of course for shorter range missiles.

    3. even the latest Russian MANPADS are immune to flares and IR counter-measures.

    4. "They would have flares and anti- IR countermeasures of course"

      I've not seen anything to indicate that. Remember that the payload is quite light. If you see a link that states that, let me know!

    5. Nothing unclas, but Dr. Phillip Karber (Potomic Foundation: “Lessons Learned from the Russo-Ukraine War” and "Lessons Learned from the 1973 Mid-East War”) made some remarks to this effect at West Point.

      Going with optical tracking (not simply IR) should be straight forward.


  5. A radar can detect targets at long range, Osprey's max range claimed as 200 nm, bearing and distance, but radar provides little detail, featureless blob (classic example when the Tico Vincennes with its Aegis/SPY-1/SM-2s shot down the Iranian Airbus A300 with 290 passengers and crew after mistaking it for a Iranian F14).

    To confirm target is an enemy warship at long range you need to be able identify the radar and other radio electromagnetic signals emanating from the target before you fire one of your limited number of NSMs from a LCS and that's assuming enemy warship not operating in EMCON mode, and to be doubly sure to confirm with EO/IR not wasting them on targeting a decoy ship which would think be easy for Chinese to produce in hundreds if necessary.

    A MQ-8C with its large blades and emitting active RF from its radar making it an easy target, the Iranians have a long track record of shooting down US UAVs, culminating in June by taking down a ~$200 million RQ-4A which doesn't give much confidence in UAVs survival rate against a peer enemy. It would be a turkey shoot for the Chinese with their long range HQ-9 SAM's fitted to their Type 052 and 055 destroyers or their fighters fitted with their long range PL-15 AAM said to have 300 km max range.

    (The high end Navy UAV variant of the RQ-4A the MQ-4C Global Hawk has AN/ZPY-3 Multi-Function AESA X-band rotating panel radar with mention of 2,000 mile range; AN/ZLQ-1 ESM suite, low and high-band signal receivers to detect electromagnetic emissions from radars to digital communications and track them to their source and analyze them; To check out targets out in detail its said has to drop down to lower altitudes and approach using the AN/DAS-3 MTS-B EO/IR sensor turret which provides auto-target tracking, high resolution at multiple fields of view, multimode colour video and still imagery of surface targets; A wideband command/control communication subsystem, provides SATCOM and line-of-Site (LOS) communication.)

    1. You seem like you were/are or have experience working with ew's. Is that a good assumption?

  6. Agreed, getting more capability on smaller, more numerous airframes should be the name of the game. I'd like BLOS, Link-16, and a SAR radar on the same platform. Right now it feels like that would be a platform slightly larger than RQ-21.

    Bell has a really good brochure on the flight characteristics of the 407.

    Also, I think there is a SAR report indicating the electro optical range on MQ-8C is 8.3km and infrared of 6.3km.

    Also with Osprey being AESA with Synthetic Aperture mode a successful target ID should be an option further out. The Osprey doesn't give a point of reference, but the NSP-5 being placed on the RQ-21 indicates resolution such it can ID a yacht at 27km and container ship at 55. I know this is incredibly vague, but helps ball park these things.

    1. " can ID a …"

      Bear in mind that these kinds of claims are based on perfect conditions that never occur in the real world. Throw in stealth shaping on naval vessels and ECM and you have to cut the manufacturer's range claims by a factor of ten or so.

    2. In the real world, how effective would an EO/IR system be at detecting a target? For example, VIDAR demonstrated it can detect a frigate at 12.6 nautical miles. Whether that detection includes being able to discern ship type and hull number is unknown. But, at that range, you're likely well within the frigate's SAM range.

    3. "VIDAR demonstrated it can detect a frigate at 12.6 nautical miles. "

      In some cases (meaning radar-stealth targets), EO is superior to, and more effective than, radar. However, you also correctly identified the flip side which is that any EO detection would be well within the targets SAM range. The question then becomes whether the target can detect the sensor platform if it's passive. If the target is using its radar then it can likely see the sensor platform. If the target is not emitting then the sensor may well be able to observe the target without being detected.

      EO is also degraded by adverse weather so it's only a 'sometime' capability.

      It's all one big tradeoff of risk versus effectiveness!

  7. I think the Fire Scout is quite adeqeute for the original CONOPS of the ASuW LCS module; sure, there are limitations to the capabilities the B and C Fire Scouts bring to the table, but these are adequete for fighting small boats and conducting counterpiracy operations.

    You're not going to make ASuW LCS a credible contender against a Renhai or a Luyang (all subvariants included), but then you need to ask why the US Navy, which has more destroyers and cruisers than most navies have ships, is sending corvettes to fight destroyers, instead of using its own destroyers or its aircraft.

    Perhaps the Navy was banking on UCLASS as a way of feeding targeting data to LCS and DDGs, given that the original spec sheet for UCLASS called for it to be a long endurance stealth airframe capable of conducting ISR, bombing, and air refuelling (well, before the requirements were scaled down into CBARS).

    1. "original CONOPS ... adequete for fighting small boats "

      First, a minor quibble: The LCS never had a CONOPS and what vague notions the Navy had along those lines did not envision a UAV. The MQ-8B, for example, began serious development in 2006+ whereas the LCS had begun in the very early 2000. A -60 helo was, of course, part of the original LCS concept.

      That aside, the original anti-swarm mission has been modified/abandoned as the Navy is now trying to make the LCS a full-fledged, distributed lethality warfare vessel and, as I've demonstrated in posts, a single UAV is not a viable sensor for this mission.

      "Perhaps the Navy was banking on UCLASS as a way of feeding targeting data to LCS"

      That's a fascinating speculation. I've never seen anything suggesting that but it's not unreasonable. Very good thought!

    2. "need to ask why the US Navy ... is sending corvettes to fight destroyers"

      So, why do you think they are? Even more, why do you think the Navy is so eager to arm amphibious and logistic ships which, by any sane concept of naval warfare, should avoid combat like the plague?

    3. It seems to me that the Fire Scout was developed for the anti-swarm functions, given that you get two Fire Scouts for the space of a Seahawk. I look at it as a platform developed to complemment the Seahawk in the ASuW module.

      "So, why do you think they are? Even more, why do you think the Navy is so eager to arm amphibious and logistic ships which, by any sane concept of naval warfare, should avoid combat like the plague?"

      I think the Navy is overreacting to all the loud voices decrying LCS for not being a Burke. Let's face it, we have some 7 dozen serious combatants (Burke + Tico), we need smaller, lighter, cheaper more expendable ships that we can use on these 2nd line tasks that Burkes are wasted on. To use an Army aviation analogy, we have a shitload of Apaches, so there's nothing wrong having Blackhawks with door guns doing things that Apaches are overkill on - but if we needed every chopper in the air spamming ATGMs at the Fulda Gap, well, slap rockets and hellfires on those Blackhawks and we've got something to augment those apaches.

      Now, using LCS as shooters against enemy destroyers can work, if those corvettes are augmenting the firepower of a DDG SAG and are being shepherded by other ships or operating under the umbrella of carrier air. That would basically be replicating what the Japanese do with their Escort Flotillas: you have an Aegis DDG providing AAW cover, a frigate acting as a close AAW/ASW bodyguard for the DDG, and then the rest of the flotilla are ASW frigates and corvettes that also carry antiship missiles that engage in ASuW on direction from the flotilla leader. But then the Japanese do things like that because they operate under strict financial and manpower limitations. Or maybe the Navy is thinking of using LCSes to fire additional NSMs to augment a carrier's air wing, so you can do things like multi-axis attacks, having the fighters engage with their missiles and guiding missiles launched over the horizon from the DDGs and LCSes.

      As for LPDs and logistic ships being armed, there's two ways of looking at it. One, maybe you want your support ships to have some self defense ability in case things go real bad. Two, with long range missiles, you don't need to be physically present in the same location to mass your fire, you just need to make sure all those missiles are reaching the target at the same point. So you can fire LRASM or NSM from a few hundred miles away, and your amphibs aren't under direct threat because those mimssiles will be guided in by a different asset, like maybe F-35Cs prosecuting an attack, or UCLASS feeding everyone targeting data. (That said: not really a fan of sticking missiles on every ship possible. That reeks of the sorta desperation possessed by small navies that need to throw up as many missiles as possible).

    4. "So you can fire LRASM or NSM from a few hundred miles away, and your amphibs aren't under direct threat "

      Be wary of falling into the trap that professional naval leadership has: that our actions are one-sided and the enemy will be perfectly cooperative in their own destruction. For example, if our amphibs are within range to launch missiles against an enemy then our amphibs ARE UNDER DIRECT THREAT!!!! After all, the enemy has just as many, or more, long range anti-ship missiles and targeting assets so why wouldn't they see our amphibs if we can see their ships? This is exactly how the Navy leadership thinks. The enemy has no capabilities and will sit quietly and cooperatively while we methodically destroy them.

      Given that in a peer war with China we'll be fighting in their 'home field', they'll have more sensors, more ships, more aircraft, and more weapons available than we will. Isn't it more likely that they'll see us and attack us first?

    5. "Given that in a peer war with China we'll be fighting in their 'home field', they'll have more sensors, more ships, more aircraft, and more weapons available than we will. Isn't it more likely that they'll see us and attack us first?"

      I think it's importatn to establish WHERE we fight China. Life becomes a lot easier if it's a limited engagement around the South China Sea (well, for a given value of limited, anyhow); that sort of distance negates a lot of China's home field advantages. I'm of the opinion that fighting in China's back yard is a losing proposition. If you look at their fleet mix, they spent the Cold War essentially being a regional navy, spent the 90s and 00s observing the USN and experimenting with their designs and fleet mix till they found what they think works for them, and are now transitioning to a blue water navy. The Chinese economy is pretty vulnerable to disruption because its SLOCs are under effective control of other people. It does them no good to turtle behind fortress China if their economy chokes to death because they can't secure their SLOCs.

      So, if we're fighting China in the SCS, then yes, I think it's possible that our theoreticall missile-equipped amphibs could escape detection, especially if the Chinese attention is being focused on our CVNs and DDGs, and the amphibs and support ships aren't emitting, merely serving as launch platforms, with the targeting in terminal phase provided by other assets. The way I see it, since a fighter making an attack run is already being targeted, and is already locking onto a ship to fire its onboard missiles, you might as well have it spot for other missiles on the way.

      ...although with all that said and done, if I wanted an asset to play expendable missile boat, I'd take LCS, toss the Seahawk and Fire Scouts, and just turn the aft deck into a missile farm and let it be the missile battery for fighters/what have you. Firing passively with an offboard asset doing terminal targeting is probably the only way LCS is going to survive a missile duel long enough to get its missiles off.

      Driving into China's A2/AD zone is exactly what they want us to do; we need to make like War Plan Orange and force them to fight away from home, so we can reduce their home field advantages.

    6. I think it bears repeating that I'm not convinced that arming amphibs and support ships with missiles to help the missile duel should be done. It's a good idea, but the most dangerous wwords in the English language are the words "It seemed like a good idea at the time.""

      I'd only support having some antiship missiles for self defence, but on the other hand, if your amphibs and support ships need to use their self defense missiles then shit has really hit the fan and you have really screwed up somewhere.

    7. "Life becomes a lot easier if it's a limited engagement around the South China Sea"

      I think you're hugely underestimating the degree of sensor coverage, types of sensors, and number of sensors that China can bring to bear on the SCS. Aside from flooding the area with aviation sensor assets, the SCS will be filled with submarines (probably the densest submarine coverage ever seen!) and all manner and size of surface ships. For example, China has over 80 Type 22 missile boats (now there's your distributed lethality vessel!) and that's just one class of small vessel. They have many such classes of small ships.

      In addition to that, China has covered the SCS with their own version of SOSUS and continues to expand their coverage. They're going to hear anything that moves in the SCS.

      I assume, although I have no definitive information on this, that China has constructed over the horizon (OTH) radars on their mainland that can cover the entire SCS.

      The SCS home field advantage is huge for China!

    8. The Woody and Paracels Islands airbases can support MPA and sensor assets, but they're also operating under pretty strict space limitations, and there's only so many MPA, AWACS and fighters you can have on those bases. Also, OTH radars are great for looking at things far away, but they don't have the resolution necessary to cue weapons and can't do target discrimination, and at the ranges we're talking about, a CVN is going to look a lot like merchant shipping on a backscatter radar screen.

      Everything you've asserted about the vulnerability of MPA and AWACS in war applies just as much to Chinese sensor assets, especially if your Navy tries to play it smart and draw the fighting as close to the Malacca Strait as it can. Every little bit helps.

      This assumes, anyhow, that it's a pure USN/PLAN fight, with no ASEAN involvement.


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