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The Pentagon has approved the requirement for an “endurance upgrade” to the U.S. Navy’s Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned aircraft system, with a larger air vehicle to provide increased payload and range to support special operations forces.
After also evaluating the Boeing A160T Hummingbird and Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max unmanned helicopters, the program office has recommended using the Bell 407 airframe, Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy’s Fire Scout program manager, said Aug. 17 at the AUVSI International show in Washington.
The program office’s recommendation has yet to be endorsed by Navy leadership, but Northrop and Bell are already jointly developing an unmanned version of the civil Bell 407 light turbine helicopter, called the Fire-X, which first flew in December.
“The MQ-8C endurance upgrade package started as a joint urgent operational need statement from Special Operations Command. The requirement was validated [on Aug. 16] by the office of the secretary of defense,” Smith says.
“Our recommendation is to go with the 407 airframe, based on the time frame limitations,” he says. The requirement is to develop the larger MQ-8C within 24 months, for deployment in 2014, with plans to acquire 28 air vehicles over three years.
Plans to arm the basic MQ-8B Fire Scout, which is based on a Schweizer 333 helicopter, also have been approved. The rapid deployment capability program calls for fielding within 18 months, possibly on the Littoral Combat Ship, Smith says.
The Navy has selected a laser-guided 70 mm rocket, BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), as the initial weapon because it has existing safety approval for deployment on ships.
“Northrop Grumman will conduct a demonstration of Raytheon’s Griffin later this month, and we would like to become weapon-agnostic,” he says. Griffin is a 35-lb. tube-launched laser-guided mini-missile.
The Navy, meanwhile, has confirmed that an MQ-8B that went down over Libya on June 21 while operating from the USS Halyburton was “lost to enemy fire.” Communications and radar contact was lost while the aircraft was flying below cloud cover in an area where other allied aircraft had already come under heavy anti-aircraft fire.