The Navy plans to begin testing the MQ-8C, a new, larger variant of the Northrop Grumman [NOC] Fire Scout unmanned surveillance helicopter, aboard the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) in late March, according to a program official.
The testing will occur aboard the USS Montgomery (LCS-8), an Independence-class variant, on the West Coast in the spring and fall, and on the USS Little Rock (LCS-9), a Freedom-class variant, on the East Coast in the fall. The MQ-8C will ultimately be deployed aboard LCS.
The MQ-8C has already flown more than 950 hours and completed an operational assessment in which “the operational testers came in and put her through her paces shore-based,” said Navy Capt. Jeff Dodge, Fire Scout’s program manager.
The Navy hopes to achieve an initial operational capability for the MQ-8C in the summer of 2018. The Navy plans to buy a total of 40 air vehicles.
The MQ-8C will have an endurance of about 11.5 hours, more than double the 4.5 to 5 hours of the smaller MQ-8B Fire Scout that has supported overseas military operations for years.
“That increased time that you’re going to be able to stay on station … is going to be a real change in how our surface force is able to collect and generate information and maintain situational awareness,” Dodge said.
The Navy has 23 MQ-8Bs and expects to get another decade or so of service out of them. To support LCS, “we’re going to keep the Bs flying until we run out of flight hours on those,” Dodge said.
To enhance tracking of targets, the MQ-8C will be equipped with Leonardo’s Osprey electronically scanned radar, and at least some MQ-8Bs are receiving the Telephonics Corp. AN/ZPY-4 radar. Both variants will eventually be outfitted with BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) laser-guided rocket and Arete Associates’ mine-detecting Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA) payload.