The armed Fire Scouts will mark a new era in naval warfare, offering an alternative to pilots flying attack helicopters or fighter jets off ships and reflecting a broader shift to robotic technology across the US military over the past several years.
An unarmed version of the MQ-8B Fire Scout is already flying surveillance and reconnaissance missions for the US Navy, using cameras and sensors inside a cone on the aircraft’s nose.
Northrop Grumman won a contract in September worth $17 million to outfit the choppers with racks capable of carrying up to eight 70 mm rockets, with four on each side, the company said.
“The operational system will be delivered by 2013,” company spokesman Warren Comer told AFP.
“By arming the Fire Scout, the navy will have a system that can locate and prosecute targets of interest. This capability shortens the kill chain and lessens the need to put our soldiers in harm’s way,” George Vardoulakis, Northrop’s vice president for tactical unmanned systems, said in a statement.
The Fire Scout had its first flight in December 2006 and is due to be deployed on new littoral combat ships under construction.
The helicopter, which is seven meters (yards) long and three meters high, can reach an altitude of 20,000 feet (6,000 meters), fly at a speed of more than 115 knots (200 kilometers) per hour and stay in the air for more than eight hours, employing sensors and radar to track targets.
The US Navy had a fleet of about 15 Fire Scouts and plans to build 168 of the helicopters, according to the Pentagon.
One of the unmanned helicopters went down in the NATO-led air campaign in June.