The MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, shown in an artist's rendering, is based on the Bell 407 Jet Ranger airframe. The C version is larger than the MQ-8B Fire Scout already in the Navy fleet. (Northrop Grumman)
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There’s a new Fire Scout in the pipeline — bigger, faster, longer legs, more muscle. It’s still being assembled and won’t fly until later this year, but it’s headed for the fleet as soon as late 2014. And it could fundamentally change some of the parameters expected of the Navy’s seagoing unmanned helicopter program.
The MQ-8 Fire Scout program has been under development for about a decade. A key factor for the aircraft was its small size, making it exceptionally handy to store and operate aboard ship.
The Navy often presents the diminutive Northrop Grumman aircraft as taking up about half the space of the H-60 Seahawk helos routinely deployed on surface combatants. And frigates are deploying with four MQ-8B Fire Scouts. Littoral combat ships are intended to routinely deploy with one or two Fire Scouts in addition to an H-60.
But something more was needed, and in 2011, U.S. Africa Command and Special Operations Command submitted an urgent needs request for an aircraft with more range and payload for their maritime-based ISR.
Northrop Grumman, before selecting the Schweizer 333 helicopter as the basis for its original Fire Scout bid, had evaluated the larger Bell 407 Jet Ranger, an aircraft familiar to Navy rotary flight school trainees as the TH-57 Sea Ranger.
To meet the new need for the larger UAV, the company proposed switching to the larger bird, but keeping the systems, electronics and ground control stations developed for the smaller helo. A demonstrator, dubbed Fire-X, was developed at company expense to show off the concept. The Pentagon was impressed, and in the spring of 2012, Northrop received a contract for the first batch of up to 30 MQ-8C Fire Scouts using the basic Jet Ranger air frame.
“The new system kept the sensors, communications and software of the smaller Fire Scout, with about 80 to 90 percent commonality with the B,” said Capt. Chris Corgnati, head of unmanned aircraft systems under the deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance (N2/N6). “But there was a different air frame, engine and rotor head.”
The new Fire Scout C is bigger — 10 feet longer than the B’s 31.7 feet, a foot higher, and with an operational ceiling 3,000 feet lower than the smaller helo’s 20,000 feet. But the C can fly at 140 knots over the B’s 110; has an internal payload of 1,000 pounds over the B’s 600 pounds; has a gross takeoff weight of 6,000 pounds compared with the B’s 3,150 pounds; and can stay aloft 11 to 14 hours versus the smaller vehicle’s endurance of four to five hours.
“The C will have approximately twice the capability of the B — time on station, payloads — and provides for additional growth, including radar,” said Capt. Patrick Smith, Fire Scout program manager at the Naval Air Systems Command. “And because of more endurance, it should have less impact on the crew, who can launch, then recover, the aircraft eight hours later.”
With the change, the Navy has ended procurement of the B model at 30 aircraft, with the last two to be delivered this year. While the smaller aircraft will continue to operate, Smith said, there are no further plans to buy more of them.
Instead, the Navy intends to order 30 Cs — two test aircraft plus 28 operational aircraft — under an “endurance upgrade.” The first test helicopter is still at Bell’s facility in Ozark, Ala., Smith said, and is expected to be shipped in mid-June to begin tests at the naval air warfare center at Point Mugu, Calif. The first flight of the type is planned for September, with the program aiming to reach initial operating capability in late 2014.
The first at-sea deployment of the C is planned for a destroyer in support of SOCOM, Smith and Corgnati said, and operations from frigates and “all air-capable ships,” including joint high speed vessels, will be studied. But the overall focus continues to be on the LCS.
Will the larger helo fit on the Navy’s other surface combatants?
“We can store two aircraft on a frigate, a destroyer or an LCS, on one side of the hangar,” said George Vardoulakis, Northrop’s vice president for tactical unmanned systems. “That’s essentially what we’re doing with the Bs as well.”
Corgnati admitted there are space challenges, but he also noted that the increased capabilities of the C could mean fewer aircraft would need to be carried.
“Nominally, [with the B] you have four-hour aircraft doing 24/7 operations, and you’re launching and recovering every three hours,” he said. “You back that off with an eight-hour platform doing similar coverage.”
He already envisions frigate deployments with three Cs rather than the now-standard 4 Bs.
Neither the Navy nor Northrop Grumman would comment on a revised cost-per-aircraft for the C, since the price depends on how many are bought. The airframe represents about 15 percent of each aircraft’s cost, Vardoulakis said, and he expects the unit price to rise roughly by about $1 million for the larger C. The more aircraft that are bought, the lesser the cost, particularly in later years, he said. Earlier cost figures had been based on the Navy requirement for 168 Bs.
“We’re certainly worried those lower quantities will impact our costs significantly,” he said.
Northrop is excited, however, about the possibilities with the larger aircraft.
“We’re marketing this aircraft for Marine Corps and Army missions,” Vardoulakis said. “Those offerings have a significantly smaller fuel tank in the center of the aircraft and volume available for storage or medevac.
“There are no active proposals for the Marines and Army,” he said. “We just see a great opportunity for synergy within [the Defense Department] for an aircraft in this class.”