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Army looks to put Fire Scout on fast track

Jun. 16, 2008 - 08:09PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 16, 2008 - 08:09PM  |  
A Fire Scout shown on display on Capitol Hill for the Army's birthday celebration June 11. The Fire Scout is now being tested and developed by both services.
A Fire Scout shown on display on Capitol Hill for the Army's birthday celebration June 11. The Fire Scout is now being tested and developed by both services. (Kris Osborn / Staff)
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The Army is still hoping to speed up delivery of the 3,000-pound, vertical-takeoff, helicopterlike Fire Scout MQ-8B UAV being developed for Future Combat Systems, service officials said.

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The Army is still hoping to speed up delivery of the 3,000-pound, vertical-takeoff, helicopterlike Fire Scout MQ-8B UAV being developed for Future Combat Systems, service officials said.

"We have looked at a number of initiatives to get this into the current fight. As technology is available, we want to get it to the fight," said Army Lt. Col. Win Keller, product manager for future forces unmanned aircraft systems. "We could use current force radios and current force sensors, but we would still have to go through all of the operational testing. Right now, we don't have funding to do that. That is something we are constantly looking at."

In years to come, the Fire Scout will be able to beam sensor images in real time to FCS-networked armored vehicles on the move in combat, said Scott Davis, deputy program manager for FCS.

"You can program its mission. You can just hit a button and it picks up and hovers and does a preflight check and when you are ready to go, you can hit go and it will run the route," Davis said. "As FCS battle command advances, soldiers driving in networked vehicles will be able to take control of it from various platforms and change its route."

As a joint Army-Navy program, the Fire Scout is now being tested and developed by both services; the Army joined a Navy buy and purchased its first eight airframes, which are now being integrated at Moss Point, Miss. The electronic systems onboard include synthetic aperture radar, electro-optical sensors, multi-spectral imaging and laser designation technology.

"The Fire Scouts are going into a two-stage assembly, where we put all the wiring and all the hardware we can on right now," said Keller. "And then, as my main payload is ready, the birds will be ready and we will do some more flight tests at Yuma. We will be conducting transport tests this month at Yuma to figure out how much shock this bird can withstand as we transport."

Along with power, high-tech, next-generation sensors, the Fire Scout's advantage is its helicopterlike takeoff ability, allowing it to quickly take off and land in hostile areas and rugged terrain.

"I don't need a prepared runway," Keller said. "My requirement is 100 meters by 50 meters, so I can take off and land in just a very small area. That is something that is not available now. It is just the whole premise of FCS being networked and being quick. I don't have to prepare anything. I can get on the ground and get back up.

"This operates several thousand feet up in the air. This package is incredible."

Since 2004, the Army has been developing the Northrop Grumman UAV, adding electro-optical and infrared sensors through a $115 million deal with Boeing and SAIC, the FCS lead system integrators. The Fire Scout is slated to participate in an FCS limited user test in 2011, Keller said.

The MQ-8B's weapon racks could carry the Hellfire anti-tank missile; the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon, a laser-guided 2.75-inch folding-fin rocket; and the GBU-44/B Viper Strike, a lightweight, laser-guided variant of Northrop Grumman's 44-pound Brilliant Anti-armor Munition glide bomb. If funding for a Fire Scout acceleration plan materializes, the production schedule would jump forward several years, from 2012 to 2009 or 2010, Northrop and Army officials said.

"We would still have to do all the integration work, but we could do it in a year," Keller said. "There is a desire to have this kind of capability. The secretary of defense has said more ISR. Soldiers need the capability. We are getting more and more manned/unmanned capability so weapons systems can stand off and the enemy does not even know we are there."

In September, the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended speeding up delivery of the Fire Scout by as much as four years, from 2012 to 2008 or 2009. The still-to-be-determined congressional committee budget markups and House-Senate conference regarding the 2009 budget cycle will likely impact the Fire Scout's production timetable.

"The committee urges the secretary of the Army to take appropriate actions to field previously produced Army Fire Scouts, with appropriate sensors and communications capabilities and requisite ground control stations, for deployment to the CentCom area of operations," reads the Senate committee's version of the 2008 U.S. defense appropriations bill.

"We have conducted some transmission tests. We have increased the hub from a three-blade hub to a four-blade hub," said Joe Emerson, Fire Scout program manager for Northrop Grumman.

The Northrop design for the Fire Scout has built-in cargo pods for carrying equipment beneath the hublike wings of the aircraft. In the future, the Fire Scout may carry weapons.

"They have done some rocket firings, so I know it is capable to do that [firing weapons]," Keller said. "With the laser designation ability, I can lase with this aircraft and fire out of the [Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon], or I could fire other munitions. I don't have to take that weight hit by putting weapons on it. I can lase and let someone with precision munitions hit the target."

The 9-foot-tall MQ-8B has a 172-mile line of sight at its 20,000-foot ceiling. It has stublike wings and a takeoff weight of 3,000 pounds, including up to 600 pounds of weapons and supplies. It is intended to do surveillance, fire weapons and land on unprepared ground. Its 10.7-megabits-per-second data link can transmit imagery to the mission payload operator.

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