After three years of testing on frigates, the Navy is creating its first squadron to deploy and train unmanned helicopter pilots to operate the MQ-8B Fire Scout and MQ-8C Fire-X.
And fleet training plans reveal a major role for enlisted drone operators, who'll operate the larger, faster Fire-X from warships in support of ground-based operations. Still, some hybrid positions — mixing manned and unmanned flight duties — will be for officers only.
Unmanned Helicopter Reconnaissance Squadron 1 will stand up Oct. 1 at Naval Air Station North Island, Calif. It will be a single squadron with three jobs:
•Serve as the fleet replacement squadron to train aviators on how to operate both Fire Scout variants and their mission payloads.
• Provide littoral combat ships with aviation detachments, or AVDETs.
• Provide the rest of the fleet's surface combatants with unmanned aerial system detachments, or UDETs.
The basics of the squadron were included in OPNAPNOTE 5400, which, along with comments from the Navy, give the most specific details about Fire Scout operations and deployments to date, including the different roles that officer and enlisted operators will play and what type of missions they'll fly when sitting at the controls.
AVDET operators will be officers from the MH-60 community. They'll deploy on littoral combat ships with both a Fire Scout and MH-60 variant onboard, and they'll fly both aircraft while underway. Only officers fly manned aircraft, so enlisted personnel would not be able to fulfill that role.
However, aviation weapon system operators — it's unclear how senior they'll be — will operate sensors on both aircraft, while maintainers will keep them operational. AVDETs will fly the MQ-8B variant, which is already in service.
Officers will head to HUQ-1 for Fire Scout training — either as an air vehicle operator or a mission payload operator — right from their manned fleet replacement squadron training. From HUQ-1, they'll head to either a helicopter maritime strike squadron or a helicopter sea combat squadron to support the LCS.
Enlisted sailors will operate the MQ-8C, a bigger version of the MQ-8B that's on a fast-track development program, from surface combatants, said Lt. Aaron Kakiel, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces. Enlisted will operate from UDETs, he said, with missions in support of conventional or special operations forces on the ground.
The Fire-X is expected to deploy in 2014.
The MQ-8B detachments, which require qualifications on both the Fire Scout and MH-60 variants, will be manned entirely by the HSM and HSC community, while the MQ-8C detachment will be manned by qualified sailors throughout the fleet, Kekeil said.
Training curriculums last no more than seven weeks, rely heavily on computer simulations and will be held at North Island. Fire Scout deployments, however, have all been with Mayport, Fla.-based frigates, and there's a Fire Scout training facility at nearby Naval Air Station Jacksonville. Kakiel said that the change of coasts is because the first LCS vessels will be homeported in San Diego and because AVDETs will come from MH-60 squadrons based at North Island. The Navy will use the Jacksonville facility to help maintain proficiencies, and other sites also are being considered for training facilities.
Personnel assigned to the squadron as instructors, staff or other billets will serve a typical squadron tour, Kakiel said.