The Army is considering sending a revolutionary new kind of unmanned aerial vehicle to Iraq that can hover at 20,000 feet over the battlefield for more than eight hours, transmitting infrared and optical imagery to commanders on the ground.
The MQ-8B Fire Scout tactical unmanned aerial vehicle system - which only a few years ago seemed all but dead - is one system Army Vice-Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody requested this summer as a possible answer to an urgent battlefield need for unmanned surveillance in Iraq.
Officials with Fire Scout manufacturer Northrop Grumman told Military.com the Army could make a decision on whether to field the vertical take-off and landing drone by the end of August.
If all goes according to plan, the company could field as many as eight MQ-8Bs to units in Iraq by mid-2008.
"We want to get the Army to fly the Fire Scout as early as possible," said Rick Ludwig, Northrop Grumman's director of business development for UAV systems.
The Army is interested in technology like the Fire Scout - which is based on the manned Schweizer 333 helicopter - for its Future Combat Systems Class IV UAV, one of the few drone systems to survive major Army budget cuts in next year's Defense appropriations request.
While the Navy is forging ahead on a ship-board version of the Fire Scout, the Army has yet to decide on some of the critical hardware and software configurations for the FCS version, Ludwig said.
The Fire Scout was originally intended to replace the Marine Corps RQ-2A Pioneer surveillance drone but was shelved in 2002 in favor of the RQ-7B Shadow.
The Navy breathed new life into the Fire Scout program in 2004 to augment its fleet of SH-60 Sea Hawks on future surface ships. The Army began looking at the MQ-8 in 2003 for its FCS drone fleet.
According to Joe Emerson, Northrop Grumman's FCS drone program manager, the Army wants its FCS-capable Fire Scout to have aerial mine detection capability and tactical signals intelligence hardware.
An Iraq deployment in the near term, however, would include infrared sensors and electro-optical cameras to give commanders a birds-eye view of the battlefield. The main sticking point for the Army version remains which flight control system the service wants to use for the drone, Ludwig added.
"They still have to decide what they want in it," he said.
The Navy is on track to field the Fire Scout in the anti-mine, anti-sub and intelligence gathering configurations in 2009 aboard Littoral Combat Ships, Ludwig said. Northrop Grumman is also working on ways to arm the drone with anti-ship munitions, including a variation of the brilliant anti-armor munition, which can orbit autonomously in search of a target after launch.