Friday, May 02, 2014

Mississippi-built Fire Scout aircraft on Navy’s cutting block

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 budget drops funding for purchases of the Navy’s unmanned, rotary-winged Fire Scout aircraft, which takes off and lands from ships and is being built in Moss Point, Miss., home state of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

Even more ominous for the Fire Scout program, the Navy’s five-year plan zeroes out its funding after purchasing the first 40 of them, heightening prospects that it might be among defense systems most endangered in a wave of budget cuts.

However, the funding freeze wouldn’t affect deliveries of 17 aircraft of an upgraded model that’s still being tested with money committed previously. That version is larger, is equipped with radar to help identify surveillance targets, can carry weapons and can fly farther than the 110-mile range of the original MQ-8B Fire Scout.

It’s unclear whether the funding cutoff will mean near-term layoffs at the Moss Point plant operated by Northrop Grumman Corp. Warren Comer, a spokesman for the defense contractor, said the plant employed he about 70 workers, but he declined to say whether any of their jobs will be affected.

The company is “working closely with the Navy on the path forward for the Fire Scout program,” he said.

In a summary of cost changes in selected programs through Dec. 31, the Pentagon listed the Fire Scout last month among two systems that were in “critical breach” of the Nunn-McCurdy Amendment, a law aimed at reining in soaring defense costs.

But Navy officials pointed to the Fire Scout’s redesign, including a larger Bell helicopter airframe, as the main reason for a projected spike of more than $650 million from the program’s original cost of $2.79 billion.

Jamie Cosgrove, a spokeswoman for the Naval Air Systems Command, said the service still planned to proceed with the eventual purchase of 119 of the aircraft but that it had reduced the number it hoped to purchase from the original 168.

In a statement, Northrop Grumman said the Fire Scout “has proven to be highly successful” and that the company was working “to meet the urgent needs of naval and special operations forces commanders while incorporating improved capabilities into the Fire Scout system.”

There’s been no sign so far as the U.S. House of Representatives weighs defense spending bills that Congress will reinstate the 2015 funding, but the process is still under way.

“We’ve supported language that would continue and sustain the Navy’s Fire Scout program,” said Laura Chambers, a spokeswoman for Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, whose district includes the Moss Point plant. “We certainly don’t want to see it end.”

The MQ-8 Fire Scout was designed beginning in the early 2000s for use aboard the smaller and relatively inexpensive littoral combat ship, which was conceived to be specially outfitted for missions close to shorelines, including mine-clearing. However, the littoral program has been controversial because of cost surges, questions about the ships’ ability to withstand damages in battle and worries about their limited armaments, said a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.

In February, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel decided to cut purchases of the vessel from 52 to 32, and the Navy said it would now consider other designs for “a capable and lethal small surface combatant.”

Northrop Grumman’s Fire Scouts have mainly been used on guided missile frigates. Capt. Patrick Smith, who oversees the Fire Scout program, said the aircraft had completed more than 4,500 operational hours in support of U.S. activities in Africa.

In 2015 budget planning, he said, the Navy “made a decision to streamline the maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance portfolio” by combining the rapid deployment capabilities of the original MQ-8B Fire Scout model with the MQ-8C, which “will have greater range, endurance and payload capacity,” reducing the need for as many aircraft. While the littoral ship carries two of the original B models, only one C model is needed, Navy officials said.

Obama’s budget “deferred” acquisition of more Fire Scouts, Smith said, “to better align” with deliveries of the littoral ships and allow for continued testing of the new MQ-8C models.