Even though the Navy has deleted plans to purchase 17 of Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopters from its five-year acquisition plan, the ultimate fate of the program will largely depend on how the service proceeds with its plans for small surface combatant ships.

The Fire Scout MQ-8C. Photo by Northrop Grumman.
The Fire Scout MQ-8C. Photo by Northrop Grumman.

The MQ-8Cs, which are a larger version of the MQ-8B Fire Scouts already deployed, are to operate off the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (LCS). So far, the Navy has contracted for the production of 14 of the MQ-8Cs with an overall program of record for 30. The first two are already undergoing early flight testing at a naval base in Point Mugu, Calif.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, however, announced last week that he was instructing the Navy to trim its buys of LCSs from 52 to 32 as part of the fiscal 2015 budget proposal officially unveiled Tuesday.

Fewer purchases of the LCS have put plans to buy additional MQ-8Cs on hold until the Navy determines how it will move forward with a successor to the current LCS program to meet the standing requirement for 52 small surface combatants, Jamie Cosgrove, a spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), said.

Cosgrove said senior Navy officials are meeting in the near future to discuss how to proceed with the LCS in light of Hagel’s decision, and “it could be” possible the Navy will return to MQ-8C at a later time.

“Navy leadership is meeting this week to discuss the way forward to meet LCS program of record requirements,” she said. Capt. Patrick Smith, NAVAIR’s Fire Scout program manager, said in a statement the Navy was aligning the MQ-8C procurement plans “to better align with LCS deliveries, while focusing on system ‘wholeness’ and integration of additional MQ-8C capabilities” such as endurance, radar, and weapons to support LCS mission packages.

Hagel instructed the Navy to come up with a different solution to meet the requirement for 52 small surface combatants in time for the fiscal 2016 budget request next year, saying that could include a modified and more capable LCS hull, or a new or existing design in line with frigates.

Hagel said he scaled back buying all 52 LCSs because of questions about its capability and survivability given the growing threat posed by new technology being developed by possible adversaries as the Navy shifts focus to the Asia-Pacific region.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said Friday the service will take a close look at improving the survivability of the LCS to meet the need for the 20 remaining small surface combatants, or consider other options if the shortcomings cited by Hagel cannot be overcome.

Based on Bell Helicopter‘s [TXT] 407 airframe, the MQ-8C is designed for a better range than the MQ-8B, while doubling the payload and amount of time it can stay aloft, according to Northrop Grumman.