Remote-control helicopters that can spy on targets and mark them for attack are expanding the U.S. military’s offensive capabilities on a range of battlefields without exposing Americans to greater casualties.
Whether pinpointing enemies, hunting pirates or tracking drug smugglers, the multipurpose craft are at the vanguard of the robotic revolution transforming warfare.
A version of the Fire Scout helicopter is already being used on surveillance missions for special-operations forces in the Middle East, said Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations.
Details of special operations are closely held secrets, but the Navy disclosed that two Fire Scouts were operating from the guided-missile frigate USS Halyburton. The ship is patrolling near the Horn of Africa as part of an international task force fighting Somali pirates.
The military also has a few of them in Afghanistan, officials said.
Pilotless helicopters have several advantages: They can stay airborne longer than manned versions; can take off and land from a ship’s deck, potentially surprising enemy spotters keeping watch for aircraft taking off and landing from a base on land; and if they are shot down, no pilot is endangered.
Robotic helicopters may enable the military to take the antipiracy fight inland as well, going after the organizers of pirate raids as well as terror suspects.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the military has become increasingly dependent on pilotless aircraft to collect countless hours of overhead surveillance footage, observing suspected enemies’ “pattern of life.” Some drones also carry missiles or bombs and have been used to attack targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
The Fire Scout is built by Northrop Grumman Corp. around the modified frame of a Schweizer Aircraft model 333, a small one- or two-seat helicopter. Operated from a control station, the robotic aircraft typically operate in pairs, with one hovering over an area of interest for five or six hours before swapping out with a second one. According to the Navy, a team of Fire Scouts can provide 12 continuous hours of coverage over a target, operating more than 125 miles from the launch site.
Northrop recently announced that one of the robotic choppers based on the Halyburton set a single-day flight record, staying aloft more than 18 hours. That included brief refueling stops.
The Fire Scout also has a laser targeting system that marks a target for other aircraft to attack and can be used as a communications relay, extending the range of ground communications systems.
Last year, during trials aboard the frigate USS McInerney, Fire Scouts helped spot a speedboat operated by drug smugglers in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The boat was intercepted by a Coast Guard detachment, which seized 60 kilograms of cocaine. Last month, the Navy shipped three Fire Scouts to Afghanistan to support troops on the ground.
The Navy said the two Scouts aboard the Halyburton flew 193 hours in two months of operation. While earning good marks on its current mission, the Fire Scout has had some development problems. The Army, for instance, had wanted a version as part of a modernization effort that was canceled in 2009 due to its high price tag. The service had ordered eight Fire Scouts, and the partially built aircraft are now being reconfigured for Navy specification.
The Navy plans to acquire a total of 168 of the aircraft at a cost of around $2.6 billion.
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