NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, Maryland — Don’t call it a comeback, since the Navy says its favorite robotic helicopter was never technically grounded. But the MQ-8B Fire Scout, a surveillance drone, has joined a commando hunt for pirates off the coast of Africa — its first deployment since the Navy briefly stopped flying the choppers this spring following unexplained technical malfunctions.
Capt. Patrick Smith, the Navy’s program manager for the four-bladed drone copter, told reporters on Tuesday that the guided missile frigate USS Klakring has four Fire Scouts aboard. The Klakring recently began a six-month deployment to Africa with special-operations personnel aboard for an “anti-piracy” mission, Smith said. The cameras aboard the Fire Scouts will aid the crew in conducting search and seizure missions on pirate ships.
That should underscore the importance that the Navy attaches to the Fire Scout. The African pirate hunt is among the Navy’s most urgent operations. And it comes just months after the Navy reluctantly told the Fire Scout it needed to take a knee to resolve some malfunctions.
In April, the Navy discovered two “unrelated operational mishaps” with the Fire Scout, one in Afghanistan — a crash — and the other aboard the USS Simpson, when it was unable to return to the ship after a spy mission. The Navy put the drone on what Smith diplomatically called an “operational pause” — not an actual grounding, but something similar enough to raise questions about the technical health of the aircraft.
That’s been resolved, Smith said, as investigations blamed trouble with the navigation system of the Afghanistan Fire Scout; it’s less clear what went wrong with the one aboard the Simpson. The result was a tougher round of “maintenance procedures” put in place to prevent a faulty copter from going on-mission. By late April or early May, Smith said, the Fire Scout was back above northern Afghanistan; a few months later, four more were prepping for duty aboard the Klakring.
That should be welcome news for the Navy — if the sea service isn’t rushing the Fire Scout back into the fight before it’s really ready. Even before the “pause,” the Navy found that the Fire Scout wasn’t completing about half its missions. The copter is already used to hunt drug smugglers in South America and went to war above Libya last year. And new upgrades are on the way.
Smith said he’s still working to arm the Fire Scout with a laser-guided rocket called the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System — essentially, turning the Fire Scout into a helicopter version of a Predator drone, so it can take someone out as soon as its cameras identify him. The idea would be to use the thermal imaging ball under the drone’s chin as a laser designator to lock in on targets for the rockets to hit. Smith hopes the armed Fire Scouts will be ready to deploy by 2014, a little later than expected. Also, by then, the Navy hopes to buy a new radar package for the copter.
And as long as Congress keeps the money coming in, the Navy plans on sending the upgraded Fire Scout on several more ships. The frigates Bradley, Roberts, Simpson and Kaufman should get Fire Scout deployments by 2015. Smith is also testing how the Fire Scout works with the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship close-in fighter. If it turns out the Fire Scout has lingering, uncorrected technical failings, a lot of Navy ships are about to learn about it the hard way.