UPDATED WASHINGTON: The Navy chalked up a big financial win for the MQ-8 Fire Scout program last month, setting the stage for a multimillion-dollar deal to buy a slew of new unmanned aircraft in the coming years.
Congressional appropriators set aside $191 million for the Navy to buy 12 new, long-range variants of the helicopter-like drone. The money was included in the defense portion of the $1 trillion omnibus spending legislation passed by the Hill in December. President Obama signed the bill, which will keep the Pentagon and other government agencies running for the rest of fiscal 2012, into law later that month. The Navy and Fire Scout prime contractor Northrop Grumman are hammering out the details on a deal to build the new C model Fire Scouts, according to a company official. That deal could be locked in as soon as March, the first official added.
The new Fire Scouts will be 85 percent common with the legacy B models already in the Navy’s fleet, the official said. But the C models will be able to fly further and carry more advanced sensor payloads on a larger, more capable Bell 407 airframe, Mike Fuqua, head of business development for Northrop’s tactical unmanned systems, added during an interview today. Extending the aircraft’s range and payload capability are the only upgrades program officials plan on building into the new Fire Scouts. For now.
Company officials are looking at including a tactical signals intelligence payload, as well as a cargo carrying capability into the C models, Fuqua said. Northrop engineers could considering arming the new Fire Scouts with BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon system. The system is essentially a Hydra 70 rocket tied to a laser seeker that can take out targets on land and, now, at sea. Plans are already in place to outfit the B models with the weapon system. The new MQ-8C would likely be able to carry the same rocket since the B and C models sport the same weapon control system, according to the official.
Other future capabilities include tying Fire Scouts to other manned aircraft in the Navy fleet. Program officials have already flown joint operations with the Navy’s new MH-60R Sea Hawk combat helicopter. Program engineers are also looking at developing a handheld, Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver — known as ROVER –to let aircrews view live video feeds collected by Fire Scout drones. Ground forces already use ROVERs to view feeds from Air Force Predator and Army Sky Warrior drones. The Army was working on a ROVER system for Fire Scout before service leaders canceled its portion of the program in 2010. That said, the Navy has not expressed any interest in adding these capabilities to the new C models, according to the official.
That deal comes as the Navy tries to move past the MQ-8s checkered testing history that had some inside the Pentagon questioning the aircraft’s ability. Last June, the director of the Defense Operational Test and Evaluation office lambasted the drone’s performance during sea trials. Reports stated all of the drone’s flights during training took off late and more than half of those missions and flights during its operations from a Navy warship were incomplete, largely due to problems with the communications link used to control the air vehicle and to relay its full-motion video. At the time, Northrop officials attributed the failures to faulty communication systems aboard the ship where the tests were staged. Those problems were not a result of systemic flaws in the Fire Scout or its control systems, officials said.