The Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout, a vertical takeoff unmanned air system (VTUAS), began its first operational deployment with the U.S. Navy last month. Two vehicles are currently embarked on the guided-missile frigate U.S.S. McInerney (FFG 8) for a six-month cruise operating alongside a Sikorsky SH-60B on counter-drug operations in the eastern Pacific. Compatibility trials with the frigate got under way last December.
This cruise is being undertaken in advance of the Navy’s formal operational evaluation (opeval), which is to be undertaken early next year. Opeval will begin with land-based trials before the campaign heads to sea. Also next year, the MQ-8B is due to begin tests aboard the lead ship of Lockheed Martin’s littoral combat ship (LCS) class–the U.S.S. Freedom (LCS 1). Two classes of LCS are being evaluated and they are to be the principal platforms on which the Fire Scout is to be fielded.
Currently, Northrop Grumman has funding from the Navy for 15 Fire Scouts, including two systems-demonstration-and-development (SDD) aircraft. Nominal requirements for the service, based on projected LCS deployment, are 170 units, but the figure could rise if the fielding is widened to other ship classes.
The Navy’s new landing platform dock (LPD) assault vessels represent an obvious application. During its first operational deployment, the lead ship of the class (U.S.S. San Antonio/LPD 17) headed an anti-piracy task force off the African coast. Embarking around six Fire Scouts in the future would provide such a fleet with a powerful surveillance capability, especially if integrated into layered operations with manned platforms and the broad area maritime surveillance UAV.
The Navy’s LCS vessels will have a wide-ranging brief, and their MQ-8B Fire Scouts must be similarly versatile to help perform the ship’s varied tasks. Northrop Grumman has designed the Fire Scout with modular “plug-and-play” payload options so it can be rapidly tailored to match mission requirements. These modular capabilities are being added as part of a spiral-development path. The Fire Scout’s air vehicle management system is segregated from that of the payloads, so new sensors can be swapped in and out without any system integration issues.
As a baseline, the MQ-8B for the Navy has a FLIR Systems Brite Star II electro-optical/ infrared turret. The next priority is to add a high-resolution imaging radar. This capability was demonstrated a while ago using a company-owned Fire Scout, and now the Navy is evaluating the Telephonics RDR-1700B and the Selex S&AS PicoSAR. The company-owned P6 instrumented air vehicle is involved in radar trials.
Another key capability for the MQ-8B is the Northrop Grumman Cobra (coastal battlefield reconnaissance and analysis) shallow-water mine detection system. Intended for a primary role of detecting mines in the “surf zone” prior to amphibious assaults, Cobra passed its Milestone C approval for low-rate initial production in April this year. In the future, the airborne laser mine detection system may be miniaturized sufficiently to be carried by the Fire Scout.
In August 2003 the U.S. Army selected the Fire Scout to fulfill its Class IV UAV requirements within the Future Combat System (FCS), and it has ordered eight SDD aircraft. However, the FCS has morphed into a new Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization program. As a consequence, the Army is reviewing its requirements and, although the MQ-8B remains the Class IV UAV within the new program, it could acquire up to 400.
In the meantime, Northrop Grumman has been flying a company Fire Scout (P7) intensely on Army-related trials and demonstrations, including work with the service’s preferred ground control segment. The company is working toward a first flight for an Army variant in 2011.
Interest and Potential
Beyond the two initial customers, Northrop Grumman is exploring numerous opportunities and 18 nations have expressed interest at varying levels. Among them is the UAE, which could be seeking some level of industrial cooperation as the nation looks to broaden its technological base.
The Fire Scout has considerable potential for a variety of other missions, both at sea and on land. Its weapons capability has been demonstrated and the MQ-8B could be armed with a growing range of lightweight munitions. Equipped with lightweight torpedoes, sonobuoys and sonobuoy receiver/relay equipment, it has applications in the antisubmarine warfare arena. Further military roles being explored are intelligence gathering of tactical signals, small-unit resupply transport and triage-kit delivery, among others.