The Navy will restructure Northrop Grumman‘s [NOC] MQ-8B Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (VTUAV) program to allow the drone to conduct shipboard tests on a vessel other than the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the company said.

Due to changes in the LCS development schedule, the Navy intends to conduct Fire Scout Operational Evaluation (OPEVAL) aboard a ship that will be designated by the U.S. Fleet Forces Command within the next 30 days. This will provide the fleet with unmanned aerial system support as soon as possible, Northrop Grumman said yesterday.

“This is great news for the Navy and for the Fire Scout,” Doug Fronius, MQ-8B Fire Scout VTUAV program director for Northrop Grumman’s Integrated System sector, said in a recent statement. “It’s a win-win situation because the Fire Scout gets to progress through testing and initial operational capability. It will be ready to deploy on operational missions and will be ready when the LCS needs it.”

According to the current schedule, the Navy will conduct Technical Evaluation on Fire Scout on the designated ship in the fall 2008 and OPEVAL in the summer 2009. Fire Scout will reach Initial Operating Capability soon after OPEVAL in 2009. The Navy will continue to support LCS Initial Operational Test and Evaluation efforts in fiscal year 2011, the company added.

Northrop Grumman is under contract for 12 Fire Scouts, the first nine of which are part of the System Design and Development phase. Three more were purchased under Low Rate Initial Production I (Defense Daily, Feb. 7).

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

In its FY ’09 budget, the Navy reduced its quantity buy of Fire Scout from what is stated in its FY ’08 budget due to competing requirements.

In FY ’08, the Navy budget showed the service buying five Fire Scouts in FY ’09. However, the Navy opted to cut two from the program due to fiscal constraints.

Fire Scout is a key component of the LCS mission packages that will enable the ship to perform mine, anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare operations. In its FY ’08 request for an additional $4.5 billion for unmet funding needs, the Navy said it needed $38.4 million to detach Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scout from the LCS schedule, keep Fire Scout on schedule, reduce risk to LCS developmental test (DT)/operational test (OT), and provide greater flexibility to the fleet with a mature unmanned aerial systems program and developed concept of operations (Defense Daily, Feb. 15).

“Continued delays in LCS are increasing [Fire Scout’s] cost,” the Navy said in its FY ’08 unmet funding needs. The VTUAV would have been on schedule if not for the LCS slide, the Navy added.

Fire Scout is currently conducting envelope expansion, software validation, payload integration and data link testing at the Webster Field annex of Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., Northrop Grumman said.