DoD in U-turn over UAV as navy seeks $45 million

The US Navy is seeking more money in the 2004 budget to further develop the Northrop Grumman RQ-8A Firescout into a more robust multi-mission system. This is a U-turn for the US Department of Defense, which had been set to discontinue the vertical take-off and landing tactical unmanned air vehicle (VTUAV) programme at the end of the current development phase.

It is understood that, subject to approval, the USN wants to pump an extra $45 million into what is being redesignated the MQ-8A Seascout. Firescout funding had been due to expire at the end of system development and demonstration in July 2003, following a decision two years ago not to proceed into full-rate production beyond the initial three machines committed to. The extra money adds six more vehicles and two ground stations.

Northrop Grumman and partner Schweizer have been lobbying hard to reinstate funding for the programme, and have agreed to pump an extra $5 million of private money into upgrading the Firescout's rotor system to a four-blade configuration. This follows senior USN leaders urging designers to show that the vehicle can perform missions beyond infrared/electro-optical surveillance and target designation.

"There is already the four-bladed rotor on the Schweizer 333; it's just a matter of transitioning to the UAV," says Paul Meyer, Northrop Grumman vice-president business strategy and development. Compared to the current three-blade Firescout, the increased gross weight MQ-8B will be capable of carrying up to 45kg (100lb) of additional fuel, fly slightly faster and remain on station over a battle group for an extended 8h.

Alternatively, the vehicle could be configured to carry additional payloads, such as a tactical synthetic aperture radar for which there is already space inside. Two systems are being considered, the Northrop Grumman Tactical UAV Radar and General Atomics APY-8 Lynx. Both offer moving target indication and Northrop Grumman has looked "conceptually" at integrating it with the Affordable Moving Surface Target Engagement capability now in demonstration, says Meyer.

Other sensors include the Littoral Countermine Sensor and airborne nuclear, chemical and biological weapons detection systems. Meyer says the company is looking at "the potential of making weaponisation a baseline", if more funding is made available. Northrop Grumman plans to test fire a Lockheed Martin Hellfire air-to-surface missile from its Firescout demonstrator after shipboard compatibility trials in February.

additional reporting by Peter La Franchi in canberra

Source: Flight International