Coast Guard Tests Navy’s Fire Scout Aboard National Security Cutter

By Stew Magnuson
The Coast Guard’s long quest to acquire a ship-based unmanned aerial vehicle is well into its second decade.

The service in December launched a Navy MQ-8B Fire Scout off a National Security Cutter, Navy Capt. Jeff Dodge, program manager for the Navy’s PMA-266, the program office for multi-mission tactical unmanned air systems, said during a recent press conference.

The Coast Guard spent one week assessing the Fire Scout, he said.

“We took [the Fire Scout] out and we showed the Coast Guard what you could do with a radar MQ-8 from the shipboard environment. We got some great video back [and] got some good images,” Dodge said.

A decade ago, a rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicle was an integral part of the Coast Guard’s Integrated Deepwater System, a 25-year effort to modernize its ships and aircraft. Bell Helicopter was initially tasked with developing a tilt-rotor UAV called the EagleEye similar in design the V-22 Osprey, but small enough to fit in shipboard hangars. It was intended to be deployed from the new cutters, and officials touted the longer range and endurance that a remotely piloted aircraft would have over manned helicopters. The EagleEye program was canceled because of cost overruns and technical problems in 2006.

Coast Guard officials have said that the Fire Scout is a potential EagleEye replacement. However, Congress never allocated any funding for the service to embark on a new UAV acquisition program.

In a joint program with Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard has deployed a land-based maritime Predator UAV that flies from Corpus Christi, Texas, and patrols the Caribbean. However, a ship-based drone is still not officially part of any cutter program.

Last spring it tested another Navy UAV — the fixed-wing ScanEagle — from aboard a National Security Cutter. It performed well enough to assist in a major drug bust.

The service has completed mission needs statements and developed concepts of operations, according to a service fact sheet. Service officials have testified before Congress that they are still actively pursuing a shipboard UAV program.

Dodge said the Fire Scout test was relatively easy to set up, with the cutter and UAV requiring minimal alterations. Both Navy and Coast Guard sailors operated the aircraft.

As the Navy ramps up its Fire Scout buys from contractor Northrop Grumman, Dodge was asked if there were potential savings if the Coast Guard boosted the number of units purchased.

“We have not gone into extensive discussions about that. I’m sure there will be a way to get some kind of savings out of the effort, but [these are] different streams of funding, and all that is always a challenge,” he said.

— Additional reporting by Valerie Insinna

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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