The U.S. Navy chose a counter-narcotics operation in waters near Central and South America for the initial deployment of an unmanned helicopter called the MQ-8C Fire Scout. The first deployment was Dec. 14 from the littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee.
“The whole team is excited to get this capability out into the fleet’s hands,” said Lance Eischeid, director of the Fire Scout program at Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC), the helicopter’s prime contractor. The Fire Scout program is based in San Diego.
The aircraft carries the AN/ZPY-8 Osprey radar from defense contractor Leonardo S.p.A. Northrop Grumman describes the radar as a powerful tool, one that lets Navy crews detect and automatically track contacts at extremely long ranges, at night and in stormy weather when visibility is extremely poor.
The Fire Scout extends the view of a surface ship beyond its radar horizon, Navy Capt. Eric Soderberg said during a Jan. 25 media briefing about the first deployment.
The system provides operators more than 10 hours of endurance and a range of more than 1,000 nautical miles, allowing missions that include real-time over-the-horizon targeting.
The unmanned Fire Scout can work in concert with manned helicopters such as the MH-60S Seahawk. That arrangement lets commanders use their manned assets in a more focused manner.
“They complement each other well,” Soderberg said, noting the 60S does not have the radar capability of the Fire Scout.
Northrop Grumman operates the Fire Scout program under Navy contracts. The most recent, announced by the Pentagon on Dec. 22, was a $22.2 million deal exercising options to provide software and engineering sustainment services for the MQ-8, including logistics, cybersecurity and program related engineering. Work will be performed in San Diego and is expected to be completed in December 2022. NAVAIR, the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Maryland, awarded the deal.
Soderberg said the Navy may one day equip the MQ-8 with a Link-16 radio, letting it share its data with other military commanders and assets. The service may also equip the MQ-8 with sensors to detect mines in the surf zone or deeper water.
Navy officials said the service is considering operating the MQ-8s off of Expeditionary Sea Base ships.
In addition, the Navy is investigating how it might equip Fire Scout with weapons.
With the MQ-8C being deployed, the Navy is phasing out its MQ-8B model, also developed by Northrop Grumman. The MQ-8B is smaller, has less range, and has less payload capacity.
Northrop Grumman converts commercial Bell 407 helicopters into the unmanned MQ-8C. The helicopters are designed in San Diego and Fort Worth, Texas by a joint Northrop Grumman/Bell team and manufactured in Ozark, Alabama and Moss Point, Mississippi.
The MQ-8C achieved initial operational capability in June 2019.
Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 22, Detachment 5 operated the MQ-8C on its initial, counter-narcotics deployment.
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