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Introducing the First Modern Combat Drone Carrier of the U.S. Navy

On Sept. 6, 2014, the U.S. Navy decommissioned the frigate USS Halyburton at the vessel’s homeport in Florida.

The 453-foot-long Oliver Hazard Perry-class vessel—named for a medic who died in the 1945 battle for Okinawa—spent just over 30 years in commission. Halyburton was many things in her decades of service. A sub-hunter, a counter-drug patroller, a famous pirate-fighter.

And, in her final years, the Navy’s very first modern combat drone carrier.

In June 2011, Halyburton joined an international force launching strikes on regime troops in Libya’s grinding civil war. The frigate carried two MQ-8B Fire Scout drone helicopters—and sent the ’bots over the Libyan coast to spot targets.

On June 21, regime troops apparently shot down one of the Fire Scouts. The Navy rushed a replacement drone to the frigate. In all, Halyburton’s Fire Scouts flew nearly 150 missions on that 2011 deployment, spotting targets with their nose-mounted video cameras and streaming the footage back to the ship for analysis and dissemination.

There were lots of technical problems. The drones’ antennas didn’t work properly at first—and that screwed up the video transmission. The Navy had to fit new antennas to two fresh Fire Scouts and swap them out with the two unmodified drones on Halyburton.

The June 2011 shoot-down destroyed one of the modified ’bots.

But the painful process of finding Fire Scout’s faults and scrambling to fix them—all while the machines were in the line of fire in a war zone—was the whole point. Halyburton-the-drone-carrier was a front-line experiment.

“First, while I can’t say I like losing any aircraft, I am very pleased to see that field testing the Fire Scout included putting the system in a position where it could be shot down,” naval commentator Raymond Pritchett wrote. “Yes it sucks to lose a drone, but it is part of the evaluation process in determining the vulnerability, reliability and contribution of these type of systems in combat zones.”

Halyburton has left U.S. service and, in 2015, transferred to the Turkish navy. But her legacy lives on in the United States. Today the Navy is outfitting new Littoral Combat Ships and, eventually, a planned new class of frigate to carry on Halyburton’s robot role with MQ-8Bs and improved MQ-8C Fire Scouts.

Meanwhile new MQ-25 tanker drones are in development for the fleet’s supercarriers. The Marine Corps also is developing at least one large drone type to fly from Navy assault ships.

Halyburton was one of 51 Perry-class frigates the Navy purchased in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The Perrys were sub-hunters with sophisticated sonars and room for a couple of SH-60 anti-submarine helicopters. The frigates possessed just enough firepower to defend themselves—a 76-millimeter cannon, a Phalanx auto-gun and a launcher for 40 SM-1 anti-air missiles.

In the waning years of the Cold War, the Perrys patrolled for Soviet subs. During wartime, they would have escorted convoys hauling troops from the U.S. to Europe.

When the Cold War ended, the Navy took away the outmoded SM-1 missiles and assigned the frigates to a wider set of less dangerous missions—stalking drug traffickers, showing the flag on training and diplomatic missions and, starting in the first decade of the 2000s, hunting pirates off the Somali coast.

Halyburton was in the Indian Ocean in 2008 when sea bandits boarded the container ship Maersk Alabama and kidnapped captain Richard Phillips. Halyburton was one of the warships that surrounded the pirates in their small boat and, after a few careful shots by SEAL snipers, ultimately rescued Phillips.

The Navy had operated rudimentary QH-50 remote-controlled helicopters from ships in the 1960s. In the late 1990s, Northrop Grumman developed the 24-foot-long Fire Scout to meet a Navy requirement for a much more capable shipborne drone copter. The MQ-8B deployed on a ship for the first time in 2008 aboard the frigate USS McInerney.

Why? Because the frigate had a big flight deck … and wasn’t doing anything else vitally important.

In 2010 McInerney took Fire Scouts to the eastern Pacific for drug interdiction. Separately, a few of the robot copters also flew surveillance missions from land bases in Afghanistan.

But Halyburton was the first to send Fire Scouts to war. It took weeks of work in late 2010 to prep the frigate for the drones.

“Integration verification included functional checks on the ship, verification that Fire Scout payloads worked properly and completion of a long-duration flight at distance from the ship,” SUAS News reported. “A team of Northrop Grumman engineers and operators onboard the ship helped re-familiarize Navy operators with Fire Scout’s control systems.”

The prep apparently didn’t catch the antenna problem that would require urgent fixes the following year. And there were other problems with the drone.

One Fire Scout operator on Halyburton accidentally let the wire from his headset depress the space bar on his keyboard—“a keystroke that had the same effect as hitting the ‘enter’ key,” according to Navy Times. “In this case, it activated the self-destruct countdown counter, the first of several steps needed to destroy the aircraft.” Fortunately, the operator caught the mistake before his Fire Scout exploded.

Glitches and all, Halyburton’s roughly 200 sailors made Fire Scout work. One senior chief—not an aviator—even got his private pilot’s license, took a five-week MQ-8 course and joined Halyburton’s rated pilots steering the robot copters via satellite.

With the antenna fix, the frigate’s drones quickly achieved a 97-percent readiness rate. Three years before leaving service, Halyburton proved Fire Scout could work. And today the Navy and Marine Corps plan to purchase hundreds of drones of different types to fly from surface combatants, amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers.