Naval Air System Command announced April 20th 2011 deployment of 3 MQ-8B Fire Scout Unmanned Air Vehicle with US Central Command (CENTCOM) overseeing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MQ-8B Fire Scout is Vertical take-off and landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle VTUAV built by Northrop Grumman. The Fire Scout autonomous aircraft is derived from a civilian light utility helicopter Schweizer S-333 (Schweizer Aircraft is a Sikorsky Helicopter subsidiary) to provide enhanced battlefield surveillance and situational awareness. The deployment was articulated around airlifting more than 90,000 lbs of equipment, notably 3 MQ-8B aircraft loaded onto a Boeing C-17 military transport that flew out April 13th 2011 along with 2 Ground Control Stations GCS embarked on a C-5 Galaxy transport plane departing on April 8th 2011. The systems are expected to conduct first flight before the end of the month.
S-333 Light Helicopter
The basic S-333 light helicopter from which the VTUAV MQ-8B Fire Scout is derived normally carries 3 to 4 people including the pilot. With a fuselage length of 22.38 ft (6.82 m) and a main rotor diameter of 27.51 ft (8.39 m), the S-333 uses a Rolls Royce 250-C20W gas turbine delivering 280 shaft horsepower to fly at a speed of 120 knots (138 mph, 222 km/hr) at an operational altitude of 20,000 ft with a range of 303 nm (348 miles, 561 km). With its Maximum Take Off Weight of 2,550 lbs (1,157 kg) the aircraft has a hover ceiling of 8,700 ft (2,713 m). This forms the basis for the MQ-8B performance capabilities with the enclosed cabin housing avionics compartment and additional fuel resulting in an increase of Maximum Take Off Weight on the MQ-8B to 3,150 lbs (1,428 kg).
The MQ-8B Fire Scout
The MQ-8B Fire Scout program is managed by Program Management Acquisition PMA-266 at Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Patuxent, Maryland. Under PMA-266 the Fire Scout was introduced to provide US Navy modern Combat Littoral Ships with an airborne tactical ISR/T (Intelligence Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Targeting) platform as well as a communication relay node.
The Fire Scout version that will be deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan will be controlled via the modular Ground Control Station instead of the ship borne US Navy Tactical Control System part of the Integrated Communication Center on Navy ships. Flight control interoperability is made possible by compliance with NATO open standards STANAG 4585. The aircraft as operational aboard the USS Halyburton (FFG 40) uses a variety of sensors to act as a network centric force multiplier in modern anti-submarine, surface and mine warfare contingency.
Modular Mission Payload
A modular payload architecture allows the Fire Scout to scale its number of sensors depending on the mission requirement up to a maximum payload of 800 lbs. The baseline payload consists of the basic US Navy Baseline EO/IR-LRF (Electro-Optical/Infra Red-Laser Range Finding) reconnaissance pod mounted under the nose allowing both Beyond-Line-Of-Site and Over-The-Horizon (BLOS-OTH) surveillance while the Laser Range Finder (LRF) is a fully featured laser designator / target illumination for laser-guided ordinance. Non Navy operators have recourse to the Star SAFIRE III pod to conduct similar missions. Optional payloads will integrate a mine detector pod, a UHF/VHF communications relay and a Maritime radar with the additional weight impacting the aircraft range from 8 hours with basic load degraded to 5 hours.
A force multiplier conducting battle damage assessment real time transmission of video generated by the E/O and IR sensors. via the secure Tactical Common Data Link allows sharing of tactical relevant information in keeping with C4ISR operational role (Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance
Role in ground combats
In Iraq and Afghanistan the MQ-8B will act as a force multiplier increasing the situational awareness around small tactical US marine conducting security and stabilization patrols. The Beyond-Line-Of-Site and Over-The-Horizon real time reconnaissance capabilities as well as Battle Damage assessment will allow better coordination and employment of fire mission from supporting branches (artillery and air assets).