NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Navy said Northrop Grumman’s [NOC] MQ-8C unmanned helicopter is proceeding apace and the service is focusing on getting the aircraft into the field and fully established but is also considering adapting its weapons to fit on to the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

Capt. Jeffrey Dodge (PMA-266), Fire Scout program manager, said the Navy is doing a demonstration of putting Link 16 on the MQ-8C to enable net-enabled weapons.

The MQ-8C Fire Scout completes a test flight at the Point Mugu Sea Range, Naval Base Ventura County.  (Photo by Northrop Grumman)
The MQ-8C Fire Scout completes a test flight at the Point Mugu Sea Range, Naval Base Ventura County. (Photo by Northrop Grumman)

Link 16 is an encrypted nodeless tactical digital data link network that can transmit and receive messages in its specific system. The capability allows aircraft  to communicate data they gather, particularly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data.  

“This would allow us to use radar, EIOR [electro-optic infrared], generate target set, and then send those target update messages to a weapon that’s in flight to allow for more precise targeting in those over the horizon (OTH) scenarios,” he said.

Dodge was speaking at a media briefing during the Navy League’s annual Sea Air Space Expo in National Harbor, Md.

The Fire Scout is also being equipped with Leonardo’s Osprey electronically scanned radar, BAE Systems’ laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), and the Arete Associates’ Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (COBRA) mine-detection payload.

Dodge said his program office expects to do the integration work with Link 16 in 2018 and conduct the demonstration “toward the end of the calendar year.”

He added that weapons testing of the APKWS “went great from an airframe standpoint,” but there are concerns when you go on a ship to make sure there is proper magazine space and setup for the aircraft’s weapons.

Since APKWS is based on an unguided rocket, it is designed to be filled up in an armory but the LCS armory does not have that space for that configuration, Dodge said.

The Navy is working on possible fixes for the issue, such as creating a full-up round version of APKWS that is “shipped assembled so that [it] will actually fit in the armory,” he said.

However, Dodge cautioned with all the weaponization studies for the LCS the Navy is looking for the right mix of weapons to put in the LCS magazines between both aircraft weapons and the ship’s own weapons. So, the armory-magazine issue has not yet been resolved yet.

Meanwhile, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency on Monday said that the State Department has approved a possible Foreign Military Sale to Qatar of 5,000 APKWS for an estimated $300 million.

Dodge said the Navy-Northrop Grumman team has been averaging about four to five Fire Scouts produced per year, and “the rest that are on contract should be delivered over the next two years.”

The Navy’s upcoming future frigate program, FFG(X) has a requirement to support an MH-60R Seahawk helicopter and a Fire Scout-style unmanned aerial vehicle or similarly-sized UAV (Defense Daily, Oct. 17, 2017).

Dodge said the Fire Scout may be used for some of the frigates and it is available as they come out of the yards. However, the FFG(X) may transition to some other UAV option depending if it requires capacity that exceeds the MQ-8C.

Dodge also acknowledged the Fire Scouts have not had many deployments due to delays in the LCS program. However, with economic quantity orders, it made sense to keep making Fire Scouts even as many are put in storage until more LCSs come into operation.

He expected MQ-8C deployments to “ramp up significantly” over the next couple of years and overall the program is where it needs to be.