A modern day “gold rush” fever is threatening to overwhelm good sense and the acquisition process. DoD is being inundated with Unmanned Aerial Vehicle concepts, often systems built of nothing but viewgraphs, that are in some notable cases in direct competition with real hardware that has successfully transited through competitive procurements and even flown in combat. Paper-promises of major increases in performance of future systems are causing some in DoD to hesitate in acquiring real capabilities now. The Services are also in danger of repeating the past mistake where each bought different and largely incompatible capabilities. Such an outcome would undercut Secretary Rumsfeld’s goals of increased jointness and greater acquisition efficiency.
One of the more intriguing UAVs ready for acquisition is the RQ-8A Fire Scout. The Fire Scout is a Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Vehicle (VTUAV), meaning that it operates like a helicopter. Indeed, the airframe and power train are taken directly from the Schweizer Model 333 manned helicopter. This is important because the use of proven hardware reduces risk and provides for a worldwide maintenance infrastructure.
The current model of the Fire Scout will be able to operate at nearly 20,000 feet, above the range of most anti-aircraft artillery. It has the flexibility to operate from all helicopter-capable Navy ships, including the new Littoral Combat Ship and from any type of airfield. The Fire Scout will have from 4 to 6 hours on-station time at a distance of 110NM with a 200 lb sensor payload. That payload will consist of both electro-optical and infrared sensors as well as a laser designator/rangefinder. Thus, it is multi-mission capable as an intelligence, targeting, communications and transport asset.
Were this not good enough, an improved version of the Fire Scout, the MQ-8B, is already in the works. This improvement would involve little more than switching from a three to a four-blade main and tail rotor. This would provide enhanced payload, range and airspeed. It would permit the integration of weapons such as the Hellfire missile and Brilliant Anti-Tank (BAT) munition on the Fire Scout. The enhanced payload capability means that additional sensors could be deployed including tactical synthetic aperture radar, chem-bio detector and a SIGINT/COMINT package.
The Fire Scout successfully competed to be the Navy/Marine Corps’ Tier 3 VTUAV. It clearly meets or exceeds all those Services’ requirements. The MQ-8B variant would significantly exceed these requirements at little or no additional expense. Yet, the program has repeatedly been threatened with cancellation. Apparently, parties within these two Services have become so mesmerized by the potential of other VTUAV concepts that have not even been tested yet, that they would forego deployment of a real system. It is time to put a halt to the “gold rush” fever. Buy proven capabilities now that can be enhanced through the process of spiral development.
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