An artist's rendering of Northrop Grumman's MQ-8C Fire Scout UAV, which is based on the Bell 407 Jet Ranger airframe. The C version is larger than the MQ-8B Fire Scout already in the fleet. (Northrop Grumman)
Jun. 11, 2013 - By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS - Defense news
Airframe Based on Bell Jet Ranger
WASHINGTON — 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 US 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, US Africa Command and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) 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 Bs will continue to operate, Smith said, there are no further plans to buy the smaller aircraft.
Instead, the Navy intends to order a total of 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.
“The future and main driver for the entire Fire Scout program is LCS,” Corgnati said. “That we can support special operations forces in the interim is [a] bonus.”
But 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.
“We’ve modeled it, we’re very confident that we will be hangaring two 8Cs in the space of a 60,” he said. “Operational, not broken down. Absolutely.”
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.”
For the Navy, a decision point is coming on whether to continue buying Cs or begin a competition for another aircraft.
“We have a desire to move to a single model,” Corgnati said. “We fully intend to use the Bs for their full service life. The initial LCS deployments will be with the B, then you’re going to see a mix over the next number of years of Bs and Cs deployed on platforms. As you go through natural attrition, the Bs will atrophy to the C or another follow-on.”
A decision on the way ahead is at least “several months” off, Corgnati said.
“Could be we go back out and do a new-start competition?” he said. Pending evaluation of the new aircraft, “everything’s on the table; there’s nothing decided at this point.”
Smaller Fire Scout Getting Bigger Punch
Improvements continue to be made to the smaller MQ-8B version of the Navy’s Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle, including a new effort to arm the diminutive helicopter.
“We’re doing another rapid deployment capability in response to an urgent-needs request from 5th Fleet [in the Middle East],” said Capt. Patrick Smith, Fire Scout program manager with Naval Air Systems Command. “We’re integrating the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System on to the B.”
The weapon system uses precision guidance to shoot 2.75-inch folding-fin Hydra-70 rockets with laser-guided pinpoint accuracy. It would give the Fire Scout — hitherto used largely for intelligence, surveillance and reconaissance missions — an impressive, if limited, attack capability.
The $40 million rapid-response program, begun in late 2011, includes development and testing along with six aircraft modification kits, Smith said. Each kit includes pylon arms and launchers to be fitted externally, and an internal wiring kit.
Aircraft are not intended to be permanently modified, but the system would be installed in theater or prior to deployment, he said.
The Navy tested similarly-sized rockets on an early RQ-8A Fire Scout in 2005, but those tests were with unguided weapons. The APKWS uses a newer laser-guided 70mm rocket that’s been in production since 2010.
“There was only one launch pylon” on the earlier tests, Smith said. The APKWS uses two three-tube launchers, he said.
Current plans are to install the system on only the B model of the UAV and not the larger MQ-8C version.
“We’ve done initial analysis with the C to transfer that capability from the B,” Smith said. “But that’s not now a capability that’s going to be delivered on the C.”
Live-fire tests with the APKWS and the MQ-8B began in May in California, Smith said, and the service intends to complete the testing in June and then determine “deployment windows,” he said.