The Navy has opened a center to train future operators of the MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter in a sign of the service’s long term commitment to the system for conducting intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) missions.

The Navy unveiled the training facility at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., this week. The facility features four simulators and instruction classrooms. The Navy is also looking at arming Fire Scouts, possibly with gun pods, Hydra 70-millimeter rocket pods and small missiles.

Fire Scouts have already been deployed on Navy frigates as well as for ground operations in Afghanistan. The Navy also envisions using the helicopters on the Littoral Combat Ships and recently issued a contract to Northrop Grumman [NOC] to begin work on a larger version of Fire Scout known as the MQ-8C and based on the 407 airframe built by Textron [TXT] subsidiary Bell Helicopter.

The Navy said that at a time of declining budgets, the new center will allow for training of Fire Scout operators without having to cover the costs of sending personnel to Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Patuxent River, Md., where the Fire Scout program is based.

The Fire Scouts are envisioned to operate with manned MH-60 Seahawk helicopters to provide an expanded sea-based ISR capability. The Navy said training will typically take six weeks because maintainers and pilots already have experience on the Seahawks.

The MQ-8C is expected to be capable of 15 hours of flight time, including eight on station–twice that of the smaller MQ-8Bs currently deployed.

Northrop Grumman and Bell internally funded the development of the new Fire Scout as a Fire-X demonstrator, which has been flying at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., since December 2008. The MQ-8C will utilize the same avionics as its predecessor and will be capable of carrying a variety of payloads, according to Northrop Grumman.

The first MQ-8C is scheduled to deploy with the Navy in 2014.

The Navy encountered problems with Fire Scouts MQ-8B when one was lost during a flight in Afghanistan in early April. Days prior to that, a communications problem with a Fire Scout flying from the USS Simpson (FFG-56) off the West African coast preventing it from landing back on the ship, forcing the Navy to let it crash into the water before fishing it out.