• July 25, 2024

With the introduction of innovative robotic helicopters, the U.S. Navy warmly embraces the exciting possibilities that lie ahead.

The MQ-8C is an unmanned version of the Bell 407 helicopter. The Navy is acquiring 38 MQ-8Cs at a cost of approximately $20 million per unit.

The U.S. Navy has begun testing its latest advanced helicopter with its newest sea-based vessel. The trial could lead to the base effectively deploying a combination of manned and unmanned helicopters.

That’s right. Robot-helicopter carriers.

A Northrop Grumman MQ-8C Fire Scout robo-copter successfully underwent “interface testing” on USS Hershel Williams in mid-April 2020.

Williams, commissioned in March 2020, is the second of three Expeditionary Sea Base ships in the U.S. fleet.

The ESBs are massive, floating outposts. With a length of 785 feet and displacing 90,000 tons of water, they can accommodate specialized operations forces, mine-warfare crews, drone operators, and other specialists alongside their troops’ boats, helicopters, and drones.


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The Navy initially developed the MQ-8 as a robotic aerial vehicle for the fleet’s Littoral Combat Ships. LCSs and other smaller warships have deployed with the smaller MQ-8B version of the unmanned copter, but the Navy wasn’t entirely satisfied.


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The LCS, in particular, proved to have limited efficiency to support an armed robot. An LCS has only one weapons magazine for all the vessel’s weapons as well as the weapons for its embarked aircraft. The Navy decided it was best to equip the MQ-8C with sensors and data-links and use it as an aerial scout, spotting targets for other ships and aircraft to attack.

Indeed, the Navy is planning to embark manned helicopters about the ESBs for armed missions.


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In March 2020, the Navy combined its sea-based ship USS Lewis B. Puller, a destroyer, some patrol boats, and U.S. Army AH-64E Apache gunships to form Task Force Saber.

The task force was in the Persian Gulf, practicing tactics for neutralizing enemy boats. The exercise clearly also served as a demonstration of force targeting Iran, whose large force of gun- and rocket-armed speedboats poses a significant threat to naval and commercial vessels in the Gulf.


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“The operations, which are designed to enhance the capabilities of U.S. forces to respond to surface threats, have involved Puller performing as a landing base platform for the Apaches, while Cyclone-class patrol-coastal ships select simulated targets for them to engage. The guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton also participated in the joint operations,” the Navy stated.

Parsing that statement, it’s clear that the fleet has devised a new and potentially capable ship-mix that could be a preview of future deployments. Now add MQ-8Cs to the mix. The unmanned copters could help the patrol boats spot targets. The Apaches would swoop in to neutralize them.


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It’s challenging to overstate how exciting Task Force Saber and the MQ-8Cs testing are for advocates of a new fleet design for U.S. maritime forces.

The Navy and U.S. Marine Corps both recognize the need to deploy their people, ships, and aircraft in new ways in order to address both the irregular threat from Iranian forces and the competitive threat from an increasingly well-armed China—all while operating within tight budgets.



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