Cost Overrun Brings Scrutiny to MQ-8 Fire Scout

 - May 1, 2014, 7:06 AM
An MQ-8C Fire Scout stands by at Naval Base Ventura County at Point Mugu, Calif. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

The U.S. Navy recently ordered five more MQ-8C Fire Scouts, bringing to 19 the number of Bell 407-based unmanned helicopters it plans to buy from Northrop Grumman. But the Fire Scout program faces scrutiny by Congress for cost overruns. 

In selected acquisition reports the Department of Defense released on April 17, the Fire Scout was one of two programs, with the Navy’s Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (Jpals), in which unit cost increases triggered “critical” breaches of the Nunn-McCurdy amendment, requiring that Congress be notified. Critical breaches occur when a program’s unit cost increases by 25 percent or more over the current acquisition program baseline (APB) or by 50 percent or more over the original APB. As of December 31, the MQ-8B/C program acquisition unit cost increased by 53.5 percent and average procurement unit cost by 49.3 percent above the current APB, the Pentagon said. Program acquisition unit cost rose by 55.2 percent and average procurement cost by 71.5 percent above the original APB.

In cases of critical Nunn-McCurdy breaches, the undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics must certify to Congress that a program is essential to national security, has no alternative and can be adequately managed to control costs. The DOD said it would make certification determinations for the Fire Scout and Jpals programs no later than June 17.

Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy’s MQ-8B/C program manager, told Watchdog.org the cost increase is the result of several factors, including the change from the Schweizer 333-based B model to the larger Bell 407 airframe for the C model; the reduction in the number of airframes the Navy will buy to 119 from 168; and combining radar and endurance upgrades into the overall program cost. Smith said the C-model unit cost in Fiscal Year 2014 was about $12.5 million compared to $10.9 million for the B model, the journalism website reported.

The Navy now plans to field eight MQ-8B systems, comprising 23 airframes, and 48 MQ-8C systems comprising 96 airframes. In its Fiscal Year 2015 budget submission, the service canceled MQ-8C buys through 2019. The Navy also plans to cap at 32 the number of littoral combat ships from which the helicopter will operate, instead of the 52 originally sought.

On April 7, Northrop Grumman announced a Navy contract to build five new MQ-8Cs, adding to the 12 already ordered. In a briefing the following day at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space conference, Smith said the integration of a Telephonics RDR-1700B+ multimode surveillance radar under a rapid capability deployment was nearing a quick-reaction assessment this year and deployment next year. The BAE Systems Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a guided rocket, has also been integrated on the smaller Fire Scout and will be tested on the MQ-8C in 2016. Smith said the Navy “will look at the market” for an MQ-8C surveillance radar.

[On May 5, Northrop Grumman sent the following statement in response to an AIN query: “The Fire Scout program has proven to be highly successful. Northrop Grumman is working closely with the U.S. Navy to meet the urgent needs of Naval and Special Operations Forces commanders while incorporating improved capabilities into the Fire Scout system.  Since 2011, three significant upgrades have been made to Fire Scout system including an endurance upgrade, weapons, and radar that allow multiple types of missions to be supported.  These upgrades, originally contracted as separate rapid deployment efforts are now being incorporated into the baseline program of record. This allows the Fire Scout system to spend greater time supporting missions with fewer aircraft. Northrop Grumman is dedicated to providing combat capability at the highest quality to naval and special operations forces commanders.” —BC]