Sailors aboard USS Freedom (LCS 1) demonstrated the future concept of operations (CONOPS) for manned and unmanned helicopters aboard littoral combat ships during an underway off the coast of San Diego April 25-May 16, in preparation for an initial deployment of the aircraft later this year.
U.S. 3rd Fleet and Commander, Carrier Strike Group 15, formerly known as Commander, Strike Force Training Pacific, coordinated the demonstration aboard Freedom with both the manned, multi-mission MH-60R Seahawk and the MQ-8B Fire Scout, a vertical take-off unmanned aerial vehicle, operating together.
“This assessment marks yet another MQ-8 system success in demonstrating effective unmanned aviation integration at sea,” said Rear Adm. Mat Winter, who oversees the Program Executive Office for Unmanned Aviation and Strike Weapons. “The effective blending of manned and unmanned aviation capabilities on LCS is key to providing our Navy the affordable warfighting capabilities they need to be where it matters, when it matters.”
The demonstration included one MH-60R and one MQ-8B both flown by Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 35, Detachment 1, aboard Freedom with a surface warfare (SUW) mission package installed. SUW provides fleet protection from small boats and other asymmetrical threats. The event informed the fleet on the status of the “system of systems” integration for the USS Fort Worth (LCS 3) deployment this fall.
HSM-35, the Navy’s first composite expeditionary helicopter squadron, became the first squadron to support LCS with both the MH-60R and MQ-8B Fire Scout. The squadron evaluated operating concepts and procedures to determine the adequacy of the composite aviation detachment manning structure of 24 people.
“The men and women of the ‘World Famous Magicians’ of HSM-35 could not have been more excited to operate the Navy’s newest aviation assets (MH-60R and MQ-8B) from the Navy’s newest class of ship,” said Cmdr. Christopher Hewlett, HSM-35 Commanding Officer. “My Sailors from HSM-35 Detachment 1 working with the Freedom team demonstrated that composite aviation operations will remain a robust and integrated capability for the future of the littoral combat ship’s missions.”
As the next generation submarine hunter and anti-surface warfare helicopter, the MH-60R is the cornerstone of the Navy’s Helicopter Concept of Operations and the Fire Scout system provides unique situation awareness and precision target support for the Navy.
“Freedom has always been envisioned to have a combined detachment of MH-60R and Fire Scout air capability,” said Cmdr. Rich Jarrett, Commanding Officer of LCS Crew 102 aboard Freedom. “We have the mission systems onboard, whether it’s surface warfare, ground control stations, or any of the components that allow us to operate both the unmanned vehicles and manned aviation systems.”
Among the missions used in the demonstration was a combined use of two 11-meter RHIBs (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat), the MQ-8B and the MH-60R to board a vessel at sea. Jarrett added that LCS-class ships were designed to operate a host of manned and unmanned vehicles, to bring a better picture of a given situation to improve coordination of all mission assets.
“This exercise really demonstrated the use of all our off-board vehicles together,” he said. “They support one another and provide us greater mission capability and visibility to monitor an ongoing mission that is taking place outside the ship via video surveillance, electronic sensors, or as a communication link. At one point we had our boarding team on the boarding vessel communicating via radio through the Fire Scout.”
LCS is expected to routinely deploy with one Fire Scout in addition to an H-60 as part of its surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, and mine countermeasures mission packages. The Fire Scout will complement the H-60 by extending the range and endurance of ship-based intelligence gathering operations.
“The future in any kind of warfare, I think, is unmanned vehicles and unmanned systems,” he said. “This is just one example of where we are heading, both in the Navy and LCS in particular, by extending our reach by operating robots and unmanned systems where typically we wouldn’t be able to get a ship.”