Navy to Start Competition for New Fire Scout Radar

By Valerie Insinna

The Navy is planning to start a competition next year for a new maritime search radar to be installed on the MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter that will conduct surveillance off the littoral combat ship.

A request for proposals could be released as early as the first quarter of calendar year 2015, said Capt. Jeff Dodge, program manager for the Navy’s PMA-266, the program office for multi-mission tactical unmanned air systems.

“We're … looking for something that is relatively off the shelf, but that has some of the modern capabilities,” he told reporters Dec. 17. “Some of the modes that we would be interested in would be synthetic aperture, reverse synthetic aperture and … motion tracking.”

The Navy began testing the MQ-8C-variant Dec. 16 aboard the USS Jason Dunham, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, Dodge said. It executed 22 landings and recoveries in less than four hours of flight tests.

A smaller version of the Fire Scout — the MQ-8B — is already operational, having been deployed on frigates and alongside an MH-60R helicopter on LCS 3 Fort Worth. The Navy has chosen the Telephonics AN/ZPY-4 radar to be installed on some B-models, Dodge said.

The larger MQ-8C uses the same data links and ground control station as its little brother, but can carry more than three times the payload and fly twice as long, according to manufacturer Northrop Grumman. It leverages the airframe of a Bell 407 helicopter.

The Navy plans to buy 40 MQ-8C aircraft and begin deploying them in 2016.

"We will be ready for [initial operating capability]. The question is going to be ship availability,” Dodge said. "We'll have all of the material available. We'll have the supplies and the training and the aircraft ready."

While the existing electro-optical/infrared sensors allow a Fire Scout to hone in and conduct surveillance once a target is found, having a radar is helpful for locating that target on the expansive surface of the sea, he said. Some of the modes on the Telephonics radar allow the MQ-8B to see more detail at longer ranges, such being able to determine how big or what class a ship is.

The Navy intends the Fire Scout to carry both a radar and an EO/IR system at the same time, which means that size and weight will be important considerations going into the radar competition, he said. Generally speaking, a larger system has more range, but the weight decreases the endurance of the aircraft.

The service is considering additional payloads for both the B and C variants. It plans on testing a version of the advanced precision kill weapons system, or APKWS, on the MQ-8C, he said. The Navy already completed shore-based weapons testing for the MQ-8B and is deciding whether to move forward with further testing or to deploy the armed capability.

Two mine countermeasure payloads are also in the works, he said. One, called COBRA, takes the place of the EO/IR ball to detect surface mines.

The other payload would provide a data link between the LCS and any unmanned surface or underwater vehicles launched from it, thus extending their range. "We anticipate it’s going to go on a weapons station as a podded solution so that it wouldn't take the place of a different payload,” he said.

Last week, the Navy and the Coast Guard tested the radar-version of the MQ-8B aboard a national security cutter, he said. “They're interested in the capabilities of [unmanned aerial systems]. They want to better understand how that fits into their concept of operations."

Although if both services were to buy Fire Scouts together, they could garner cost savings, the Coast Guard is still evaluating potential UAS concepts and has not yet decided which platforms it wants to aquire. There have been no discussions on a joint purchase of MQ-8Cs, Dodge said.

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, C4ISR, Sensors, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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