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Northrop Grumman sees bright future for MQ-8 despite US Navy divestments

A Northrop Grumman MQ-8C aboard the USS Jason Dunham in 2021. (Northrop Grumman)

Despite the US Navy's (USN's) recent cuts, entirely divesting the MQ-8B and cutting the follow-on MQ-8C fleet to eight operational helicopters, Northrop Grumman anticipates a bright future for the Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Both Northrop Grumman and the USN are focused on expanding the MQ-8's role. The helicopter was built to give Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability, using its Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) Systems Brite Star II electro-optical payload and Leonardo Aperture radar to remotely detect targets and threats. The data from these sensors is sent back to the ship and distributed from there, but the USN has of late stressed on feeding data into a digital cloud and distributing it immediately and widely to provide a common operation picture for any forces in the region.

β€œWe are constantly making improvements to the system,” Lance Eischeid, Northrop Grumman's MQ-8 programme manager, told Janes . β€œ[One thing] on our road map is a datalink that will allow [the USN] to share the sensor tracks and data with other users. Right now, we have a tactical datalink that pipes our sensor data back to the control station on the ship. But we want to be able to broadcast that to other air assets and other ships so that sensor data can be utilised for any shooter.”

The company is exploring the use of satellite communications (satcom). While current use is limited to line-of-sight communications with the host ship, limiting the UAV's operational range to roughly 150 nm, satcom could extend its useful range to 600 nm or more.

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