Warplanes: March 7, 2004

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In January, the RQ-8B Fire Scout VTOL (vertical take off, it's a helicopter) UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) was chosen by the US Army as the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) component of its Future Combat System (FCS) family of unmanned vehicles. An eight-year, $115-million  system development and demonstration effort is underway. The Fire Scout is based upon the Schweitzer 333 unmanned helicopter, which in turn is derived from the Schweitzer 330 commercial lightweight manned helicopter. The contract was awarded by Boeing Integrated Defense Systems and Science Applications International Corporation, who are the Army's FCS lead systems integrators.

For this contract, Northrop will create the Unmanned Aerial System architecture, produce seven RQ-8B Fire Scout UAVs, perform system tests and evaluations, and develop a set of future requirements. Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems will integrate the reconnaissance (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, or ISR) and target acquisition systems for Fire Scout. The Army plans to use FCS Fire Scout to provide ISR data collection, real-time tactical imagery (live video of the battlefield), targeting, and more, for brigade level operations. 

The Fire Scout system will be deployable aboard a single C-130 (or larger) aircraft and will consist of four aircraft and the associated ground control equipment that will be mounted on two trucks (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles) and one trailer. The system can be operated by two troops. 

The Army RQ-8B differs from the RQ-8A version being integrated into Navy operations in that it employs a four-bladed vs. three-bladed main rotor and several other enhancements to double its on-station time and triple its payload carrying capability to 600 pounds. In 2003, Fire Scout tests employed the General Atomics Lynx synthetic aperture radar with ground moving target indicator; the Navy's baseline electro-optical/ infrared/ laser designator range finder; and a communications relay payload for a combined payload weight of 430 pounds. 

The original Army requirements called for a VTOL, low-cost, low IR signature UAV with a gross weight of 2,500 lb, a six-hour endurance, a range of 90 miles, and a payload capacity of 200 pounds. It was to perform intelligence gathering missions using daylight and night (infrared) cameras and have alternate payloads including Communications Relay (extending the range of radios used by widely separated units), COMINT/SIGINT (collecting enemy communications and electronic signals), Met Sensor (collecting weather information), Mine Detection, SAR (search and rescue), and NBC (chemical, biological and nuclear) defense. The UAV can also carry a radar (synthetic aperture radar) and, laser target designation.

Seven RQ-8Bs will be delivered between 2007 and 2008. No decision has been made on further production. Fire Scout has been in development and low-rate initial production since 2000 and has successfully flown more than 75 test flights since May 2002. An army-wide production run will entail a contract of significant size. 

The Fire Scout is one of eight Future Combat System (FCS) UAVs planned. The other seven range from one-pound, shoulder-launched "throw-aways" for over-the-hill looks, up to a two ton high altitude, long endurance UAV. All the FCS equipment (ground and air) are to be available by 2010, with the entire army re-equipped by 2020-2025. -- K.B. Sherman

 


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