Edinburgh, UK – 12 October 2012
By Fiona Pringle
Fire Scout UAV problems mark poor start for hi-tech APKWS integration
The decision to upgrade the US Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout rotary wing UAV with laser guided precision firepower has been lauded by programme managers as providing a cost effective force multiplier for US expeditionary forces, but experts say upgrade costs are overtaking Fire Scout’s core capabilities.
BAE Systems announced on 17 September a US Navy contract to integrate the advanced precision-kill weapon system (APKWS) with the Navy’s Fire Scout Fire Scout Vertical Take-off and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (VTUAV) with the goal of extending air support in conventional and asymmetric warfare.
US Marine Corps live fire tests reveal that the APKWS modified rockets – which incorporate a new semi-active laser guidance mid section with a legacy 70 millimetre Hydra motor – can accurately strike multiple stationery targets or high speed moving targets to within 44 centimetres of the laser spot.
ISR beginnings and early problems
Previously used in a purely intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) role, the Northrop Grumman manufactured Fire Scout has already seen service in support of ground combat and anti-piracy missions. It was deployed aboard guided-missile frigate USS McInerney and used to identify and track drug smugglers crossing the Eastern Pacific. It has also been deployed to Kunduz, Afghanistan since April 2011, flying over 300 hours per month and providing tactical video support to US and coalition ground forces.
BAE has expressed confidence in Fire Scout being a suitable match for their ‘unpack and shoot’ system, which they say is designed to prosecute soft and lightly armoured targets, particularly in an urban warfare environment where avoiding collateral damage is a priority.
Pete Singer, author of Wired for War, told DefenceReport that “APKWS definitely adds to the capability of the Fire Scout. It brings it more in line with the original concept of a system at sea that can do more than just point and stare, but now truly join the fight.”
While experts continue to praise APKWS’ capabilities, there has been less than enthusiastic endorsement of the Fire Scout fleet chosen to deploy it. Critics say that, with 168 MQ-8Bs on order at a cost of USD 16 million each (GBP 10 million), the decision to add the APKWS upgrade to a platform that is simply a rolling replacement does not provide value for money in the face of some USD 600 billion (GBP 374 billion) in pending US defence cuts.
Fire Scout’s primary faults are data link interruptions and vulnerability to counter-air threats in contested airspace.
The UAV was first grounded in August 2010 during testing when it became unresponsive and entered restricted airspace in Washington D.C. The Navy said the cause was a software failure. While on operational duty in March 2012, the Fire Scout experienced data link failures preventing it from landing on board ship and crew were forced to ditch the aircraft in the water. Another similar failure caused one to crash in Afghanistan in April. The Navy temporarily grounded the fleet, but has released no official statement as to the cause of the Afghan mishap.
The Pentagon’s office of the director of operational test and evaluation (DOT&E) released a report last year that said Fire Scout was unreliable in combat and suitable only as a remote ISR platform. It gave the Fire Scout a mission completion rating of just over 50 percent, which the Navy disputes.
In addition to internal failings, the rotary wing UAV has proven prone to unguided anti-aircraft fire.
Libyan anti-aircraft fire brought down a Navy MQ-8B conducting ISR east of Tripoli on 21 June 2011. Of the operational fleet of US military drones conducting sorties at the time, it is the only known loss of a US unmanned system in the region in the run-up to and during Nato operations targeting Moammar Gadhafi.
Evaluating cost and Fire Scout strike capability
Some UAV experts point to Fire Scout’s limited ISR role as a more suitable mission for the bird.
Keven Gambold of Unmanned Experts told DefenceReport that “persistent overwatch” was still a high priority in battlefield awareness, particularly in rapidly evolving combat situations on the ground. What Fire Scout continues to offer are “expanded sensor horizons to the embarked fleet.”
As US Air Force and Naval air force defence budgets face contraction, the integrated Fire Scout and APKWS has been rewarded the quick go ahead. Upgrading an operational platform like the MQ-8B appears to fill a cheap gap in requirements, and the decision to arm the UAV with a cost-effective weapons system seemed to fit the bill. “As precision and surgical strikes are here to stay, using smaller weapons is a trend started in manned platforms for many missions,” Gambold said.
It is a picture of the future that Navy Captain Patrick Smith, Fire Scout programme manager, is keen to see take shape: “Navy UAS will increase substantially as they are integrated with manned platforms to provide effective ISR along with precision strike assets.”
It is true that APKWS offers flexibility by allowing warheads or rocket motors to be mixed and matched for specific missions, granting flexibility to mission planning and appealing to different branches of the Armed Forces. It is also relatively inexpensive at USD 28 thousand (GBP 17 thousand) per round.
But regardless of how cost-effective the missile system is, experts say the inability of Fire Scout to survive in contested airspace makes the cost of deploying APKWS prohibitive. Retired US Navy Captain Jan van Tol, who works at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told DefenceReport the picture of that vulnerability is growing. The Fire Scout, he said, is likely to prove vulnerable to man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs). Should the platform’s sudden data link failures persist, a loss of connectivity between the system and the operator would leave the hovering drone an easy target for low altitude mobile SAMs.
“These Fire Scouts aren’t cheap, except in a relative sense. So the US Navy certainly wants to get them back after a mission,” Van Tol said.
Singer played down the Fire Scout’s technical issues as endemic to most unmanned systems. “Even advanced technology can fall prey to all the same sort of hardware and software glitches that trouble your and my computers and cars every day.”
Considering the US Navy has recently expanded its order for the MQ-8B, programme managers may find it somewhat more difficult to rationalise further investment in what would be a disposable USD 16 million (GBP 10 million) aircraft, however.
Add to this a more serious unknown – an unmanned airborne lethal precision guided weapon system prone to data link blackouts – and the true costs of deployment in a combat theatre may be dramatically underestimated.
Feature photo / “MQ-8B Fire Scout recovers on board USS McInerney” – Northrop Grumman
Fiona is a defence journalist specialising in military technology and industry. She is based in Edinburgh, UK.