More than a thousand hours of flight time carried out this year by deployed Fire Scout unmanned helicopters is evidence that the system is working through its developmental problems and showing itself able to deliver a reliable reconnaissance and surveillance capability, the program's U.S. Navy managers said.
"Since May 21, we've got over 718 hours of flight time in Afghanistan," said Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy's Fire Scout program manager at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. "We have a monthly goal of 300 hours, and in June we hit 307. In July, we're tracking toward 375 hours. Our reports back from our U.S. and allied customers have been very, very favorable. And this is why I would call all the work done in early 2011 a success. The proof is in the pudding with what we're doing in Afghanistan."
Two Fire Scout systems, including six aircraft and their control units, were sent to Afghanistan in April and May at the request of combatant commanders. Another system with two aircraft has been deployed to the Mediterranean Sea and Horn of Africa region aboard the frigate Halyburton.
"We've put over 435 hours of flight time from USS Halyburton," Smith said, despite the June 21 loss of one of the aircraft over Libya. A replacement aircraft was soon sent out to the frigate, he added.
The reliability of the MQ-8B Fire Scout was recently called into question by an "early fielding report" prepared by the Pentagon's Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). The report, which relied on data and observations completed this spring, claimed the control data link between airborne drones and their ground-based controllers was "fragile," and that the Navy's test program was not realistic or complete.
The Navy plans to buy up to 168 Fire Scouts from Northrop Grumman to operate from ships at sea. The program is still in its test phases, and is not expected to be declared operationally effective until 2013.
The DOT&E report chided the program for an inability to provide a "time-sensitive" asset, and claimed that half the missions flying from the Halyburton were unsuccessful.
"The deployment had two purposes," Smith said. "Integration with the ship to support anti-piracy and maritime operations, and as a proof of concept with our special operations forces in supporting sea-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations.
"We've had some fantastic collection of data," Smith said. "We've had very good reports from the customers."
Smith did not dispute the DOT&E report's findings that the early spring tests at Webster Field in southern Maryland were difficult.
"We were surging to meet the Afghan deployment," he said. "We were able to prove out all the hot weather changes that were incorporated. All the payload issues. And train the crews.
"We were not able to execute a major scenario that would truly simulate what they would see in Afghanistan. We were able to do it in parts, but not altogether."
Among the problems, he said, were range limitations, scheduling issues, and the availability of aircraft and people.
"We were also packing up the systems to ship them to Afghanistan," said Cmdr. Manny Picon, the program's military lead.
"We have a bit more hindsight now than was available then they wrote the report," Smith said. "The big thing we're tying to get out is we understand the issues. We've had issues with the data link as reported in the early fielding reports. We look at the flight hours as more of an indicator as to how we've been able to produce."
A well-publicized event last year when a Fire Scout headed for Washington after its data link was lost was due to a software problem that's been fixed, Smith said. Reliability has not been a significant factor on the deployed systems.
"With Halyburton and in Afghanistan, we've not seen similar behavior, losing the links, that we saw at Webster," Smith said, nor have there been major problems in restoring lost links. "Yes, they've had dropped links, but it has not impacted missions. It's been restored and missions have continued. I would classify them as minor interruptions, as you'd have with any radio system. Our datalink reliability is in the high 90 percentages."