A Fire Scout flies over Afghanistan in 2011. The unmanned helicopter system recently completed its 28-month mission there. (Northrop Grumman)
The Navy’s MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter wrapped up its Afghanistan mission earlier this month after more than 5,000 flight hours, the program’s top officer said Tuesday at an unmanned-vehicle symposium.
The three MQ-8Bs have been “packed up and shipped out of [Regional Command-North] on their way home,” said Fire Scout program manager Capt. Patrick Smith, in remarks during the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Unmanned Systems 2013 conference. It was the first land-based deployment for the aircraft in U.S. Central Command, and it spanned 28 months.
While deployed, the unmanned helicopters supplied real-time video to ground-based units, assisted in efforts to root out improvised explosive devices and offered other surveillance services to U.S. and coalition forces, according to a news release from its manufacturer, Northrop Grumman. Northrop contractors deployed with the system, providing maintenance and serving as operators, Smith said.
Next up for the Fire Scout:
■ Continued deployments aboard frigates similar to the one ongoing aboard the Samuel B. Roberts — where four MQ-8Bs recently set a new benchmark with 333 flight hours in a month. The Navy announced the news Aug. 6, while the frigate was in the Mediterranean Sea.
■ Improvements to the aircraft’s radar capability with a Telephonics AN/ZPY-4 radar system — a lightweight design that will expand “area of surveillance capability,” Smith said, helping operators “put eyes on targets faster, and also to determine which targets they’d like to see presented first.” Twelve of the systems, including three spares, reportedly will be delivered by December 2014.
■ More time on littoral combat ships of both types. It’ll go out to sea with the Fort Worth, a Freedom-class variant, in November, Smith said, and will be on the Freedom as part of “integration with additional ships” in 2014. He said he’s also “tracking to get onboard LCS 2 [Independence] or LCS 4 [Coronado] in 2014.”
Of the 30 MQ-8Bs ordered, including those for testing, Smith said he expects 24 to be used in support of LCS operations.
Smith also addressed the development of the MQ-8C, which is 10 feet longer than the B variant’s 31.7 feet, can fly 30 knots faster (140 vs. 110) and has a 400-pound edge in internal payload (1,000 vs. 600).
It can also stay in the air 14 hours — three more than the B variant. That will allow 24 hours of coverage, what Smith called a “full orbit.” The B variant completed 17-to-18-hour “fly days” during recent action aboard the frigate Bradley, Smith said.
Tests are ongoing with the fleet’s lone MQ-8C at Point Mugu, Calif., Smith said. Flights could begin in October, with initial at-sea test aboard the destroyer Jason Dunham in 2014, he said.
Between the variants, Smith said, the Navy plans to buy 96 Fire Scouts.