The U.S. Navy plans to change the airframe of the Northrop Grumman MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter to extend endurance and payload to meet an urgent special operations requirement for a sea-based medium-range surveillance platform.
Funds are requested in fiscal 2012 to buy the first 12 MQ-8Cs, based on the Bell 407 commercial helicopter rather than the smaller Schweizer (now Sikorsky) S-333 on which the MQ-8B is based.
In December, Northrop and Bell flew the company-funded Fire-X demonstrator, based on the 407, to show that a new airframe could be integrated into the unmanned architecture developed for the MQ-8B Fire Scout.
In budget documents, the Navy says it was directed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense to modify the MQ-8 with a larger airframe and new payloads to provide an interim maritime capability to special operations forces (SOF).
The Navy is to acquire additional aircraft and modify additional ships to support multiple orbits through fiscal 2018, when the new Medium-Range Maritime Unmanned Aerial System (Mrmuas) is to be fielded to “provide the long-term capability for beyond line-of-sight SOF and Navy missions,” the documents state.
The MQ-8C is to be an engineering change proposal (ECP) to the existing system, using the existing avionics, payloads, command-and-control links and ground control station. The MQ-8 ECP will “leverage over 85% of the Fire Scout system hardware and 95% of the software,” the documents claim. The follow-on Mrmuas is to be capable of operating not only within line-of-sight of the ship, like Fire Scout, but also beyond line-of-sight in “remote split” mode via satellite communications. This will allow control hand-off to a land-based ground station like that of the Navy’s MQ-4C Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system.
The Navy is seeking $15 million in fiscal 2012 and $1.03 billion over the 2012-16 future years defense plan for Mrmuas.
An analysis of alternatives for the system is planned to begin this quarter. Up to five trade-study contracts are to be awarded, with two vendors to be selected for the prototype phase beginning in the first quarter of 2013. Development testing of the winning design is to be completed by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2016.
The Navy’s fiscal 2012 budget also requests funds for a new program to develop technology for the so-called Medium-Range Unmanned Aerial System (Mruas), described as a future sea- and land-based vertical-takeoff-and-landing UAS with at least a 300-mi. radius and 9-hr. endurance.
The Navy is requesting $57 million in 2012-14 for the Medium-Range UAS, with a desired initial operational capability in 2018-19, but how this program fits with Mrmuas is not clear from budget documents.