By Geoff Fein

In its FY ’09 budget, the Navy reduced its quantity buy of Northrop Grumman‘s [NOC] Fire Scout vertical takeoff unmanned aerial vehicle (VTUAV) due to competing requirements, according to a Navy official.

Last year’s Navy budget showed the service buying five Fire Scouts in FY ’09. However, the Navy official said earlier this week the Navy opted to cut two from the program due to fiscal constraints.

“There are no problems with the UAV program,” Rear Adm. Stanley Bozin, director of the Navy’s budget office, told reporters earlier this week during the service’s budget briefing.

The three remaining Fire Scout MQ-8Bs will be purchased later in under Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) II, according to Northrop Grumman.

Fire Scout, which is planned for deployment aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) as part of the mission packages that will enable LCS to perform mine, anti-submarine and anti- surface warfare operations, reached LRIP I last summer, Doug Fronius, Navy Fire Scout program director, told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

The first nine VTUAVs are part of the System Design and Development phase. Northrop Grumman then came under contract after being approved for Milestone C at the end of May ’07, he said.

Under LRIP I the Navy purchased three MQ-8Bs. “So we are under contract today for a total of 12 for the Navy,” Fronius said.

The three LRIP I aircraft are in fabrication at New York-based Schweizer Aircraft [UTX] and at the various subcontractors who make all the components, he added.

“They will first arrive in Mississippi…number 10 ,which is the first of the LRIPs, arrives around mid-year,” Fronius said. “It’s about an 18-month production cycle and we are about nine months into it.”

Northrop Grumman anticipates coming under contract for LRIP II later this year.

While the Fire Scout air frames are built at Schweizer, all the avionics, communications gear, payloads and software are installed at Northrop Grumman’s Moss Point, Miss., facility.

Along with the Navy’s variant of Fire Scout, Northrop Grumman is also building a VTUAV for the Army’s Future Combat System, which is managed for the Army by Boeing [BA] and SAIC [SAI].

In addition, Northrop Grumman has moved its Global Hawk center fuselage production from its Palmdale, Calif., site to Moss Point.

As the Palmdale facility began to take on new business and grow, Northrop Grumman looked at the workloads at its Moss Point complex.

“The Fire Scout program, especially on the Army side as they are under FCS, wasn’t looking like it was going to ramp up into production at the high rate as soon as projected. So the amount of work at Moss Point was somewhat low to sustain a good work force,” Fronius said.

The decision to pull the Global Hawk work out of Palmdale and put it in Moss Point balances the work forces much better, he added. “It’s good for Moss Point to give them more work while we wait for the for sure Fire Scout expansion and it’s good for Palmdale because they have plenty to do on their plate already and they can concentrate on the high-end systems integration that they can do there,” he added.

Last month Moss Point held its first Navy Fire Scout engine run, an event usually conducted at Naval Air Station Patuxent River’s Webster Field annex, Fronius noted.

“This is a fairly significant event on the helicopter. From a NAVAIR (Naval Air Systems Command) point of view, it is a flight clearance event,” he said.

Engine runs on the first two Army Fire Scouts were held at Moss Point. However, because the Navy is doing flight tests at Webster Field, the Navy and Northrop Grumman together decided to conduct the first three engine runs there. “That was just for convenience, because the flight test team had the most experience doing that and they were there already,” Fronius said.

However, now that the Fire Scout production team is getting fully trained in doing engine runs, all future events will be done at the Moss Point facility, he added.

Fronius said Fire Scout will likely do its first ship landings later this year on a ship other than LCS. “LCS is too busy being developed and we want to do valuable flight test work.”

Northrop Grumman and the Navy have yet to identify which ship Fire Scout will land on, but Fronius said the company and the service are actively working together to identify the ship that Fire Scout will first land on.

In the mean time, Fire Scout is continuing flight tests at Pax River using the latest shipboard control consoles and shipboard control station software from Raytheon [RTN] called Tactical Control Systems (TCS) software.

Fire Scout will transition to its Technical Evaluation (TECHEVAL) phase before mid year, in the May-June time frame, Fronius said. Once it completes TECHEVAL, Fire Scout will move into the Operational Evaluation phase, likely by the end of the year, he added.

While aircraft numbers one and two continue through their paces at Pax River, aircraft three through nine won’t be used in the test program except for some ground tests, such as C-130 load tests, Fronius said.

“They are non-instrument aircraft that can be eventually upgraded and become fleet assets,” he said. “They will be fully operational assets ultimately.”

Although Fire Scout is a key component of LCS’s mission package systems, Fronius said the VTUAV can land and take off from any ship that has the system components to operate Fire Scout integrated on it.

“[There] has been discussion about going onto other ships because it is a requirement that we don’t do anything that prevents us from going to another ship,” he said. “So we certainly discuss that and look at other ship requirements and what it takes to go on them and make sure we are designing a system that’s ready to go on any fleet vessel that’s equipped for helicopters.”

In January 2006, a RQ-8A Fire Scouts, an earlier variant of the VTUAV, completed a total of nine autonomous takeoffs and landings from the USS Nashville (LPD-13), representing the first time a Navy UAV has performed vertical landings on a moving ship without a pilot controlling the aircraft (Defense Daily, Jan. 23, 2006).

While Northrop Grumman and the Navy search for a ship to conduct landing tests with the newer MQ-8B, Fronius noted that it’s possible Fire Scout could land on one ship for its initial developmental test, and conduct TECHEVAL and OPEVAL on additional ships.

Northrop Grumman has also held numerous discussions with the Coast Guard as the service looks for a UAV to replace the Bell Helicopter Textron [TXT] Eagle Eye tiltrotor aircraft. The service stopped funding the effort.

“[The Coast Guard] have been doing an AoA [and] we have been providing them information, and we are optimistic they will realize the considerable leverage, financial and interoperability leverage, they can glean from joining the Navy in their program of record,” Fronius said. “And it’s clear the [National Security Cutter] requires a UAV to extend its eyes and ears and let the ship realize all the ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) potential it is capable of.”

Northrop Grumman has also identified 14 nations interested in the VTUAV, Mike Fuqua, Fire Scout business development manager, told Defense Daily during the same interview.

“We’ve got a great relationship and a great partnership with the Navy in pursuing international sales, because if you drive the sales up, you drive the costs down,” Fuqua said.

“We have a very strong dialogue going with several countries. The bottom line is, as is usually the case, most are watching the Navy program and as it reaches more maturity and reaches OPEVAL and passes OPEVAL, we believe that there will be an acceleration of that interest,” he added.