UAV center delivers on promise

The Fire Scout is destined to be coupled with a new strike missile system that extend
the killing range of littoral combat ships

Gulf Coast Reporters League
October 2019

When Northrop Grumman first established its Unmanned Systems Center in Moss
Point in 2006, the hope of economic development officials was that it was the first
step for a facility destined to grow. That optimism made sense because unmanned
systems represents a growth field in the military.

It has delivered on that promise.

Today workers at the plant are doing the finishing work on the second version of the
Fire Scout, a larger, more capable model based on the Bell 407 helicopter.
Designated the MQ-8C, the helicopter's role in the Navy is expanding, with the
helicopter now one element of new Navy approach to the mission of the Littoral
Combat Ship. The Fire Scout, working with the Raytheon/Kongsbert-made Naval
Strike Missile, promises to turn the LCS fleet into high-tech ship-killers able to
destroy an enemy ship more than 100 nautical miles away.

That, in itself, would be an important contribution of the manufacturing plant. But the
MQ-8C, which is also test flown here, is not the only work done in Moss Point. It also
does fuselage work on variants of the Global Hawk, and is doing subassembly work
on the F-35 fighter.

More UAVs
In August Northrop Grumman said it plans to more than double production capacity
for the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-4C Triton unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) to 12
aircraft per year in anticipation of growing demand for the intelligence, surveillance
and reconnaissance platform.

The manufacturer is adding production capacity to its Site 7 facilities in Palmdale,
Calif. It started production out of a recently remodeled building the week of Aug. 26,
the company told FlightGlobal on a tour of the facilities on Aug. 20. The building is on
the grounds of United States Air Force Plant 42 and was previously a manufacturing
facility for the Northrop F-5 fighter.

Northrop Grumman has lined up six customers for variants of its high altitude long
endurance UAV: The U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force (USAF), NATO, South Korea, Japan
and the Royal Australian Air Force.

The company previously produced between three to five RQ-4 Global Hawk or MQ-
4C Triton aircraft per year. Typically it takes 162 to 174 days to build the UAV: 150
days to build the fuselage in Moss Point, Miss. and 12 to 24 days for final assembly
in Palmdale, the company says.

It was this type of growth in the unmanned systems field that prompted the excitement
in Jackson County about what the future could hold. Growth was expected.

Northrop Grumman in June 2018 officially opened a new operational area at its
101,000-square-foot Moss Point manufacturing center to add a new line of work. The
company said the expanded production facility could now handle projects on manned
aircraft systems and more jobs.

Kevin Mitchell, vice president of global operations at Northrop Grumman’s aerospace
systems sector, said the company saw the number of employees at the site grow by
more than 40 percent since 2017. Gov. Phil Bryant was among those attending a
ribbon-cutting that marked the official launch of the new machine shop section at the
Moss Point facility.

The $3.7 million expansion was announced in May 2017 by Bryant during the annual
investors meeting of the Jackson County Economic Development Foundation. He
said at the time that it would create 60 additional jobs. The new work includes sub-
assembly work for the F-35 stealth fighter. The state contributed $7.5 million in BP
restoration money to harden the runway at the airport.

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) in late August was
awarded a grant of more than $6.7 million for the Trent Lott International Airport
Runway Improvements project. It's part of the Resources and Ecosystems
Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies of the Gulf Coast
States Act of 2012 (RESTORE Act), which provides funding for Gulf Coast states
affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill.

MDEQ will subaward the project to the Jackson County Airport Authority to support
engineering and design, surveying, permitting, and construction at the airport in
Moss Point. The improvements will allow the airport to accommodate medium and
large cargo planes used by local industries.

“Trent Lott International Airport already is home to world class manufacturing at
Northrop Grumman’s manned and unmanned systems facility,” said George
Freeland, executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development
Foundation, “but Jackson County remains focused on strategic improvements that
position this community for continued growth in the aviation sector.”

Initial operation capable

The U.S. Navy declared initial operational capability for the Northrop Grumman MQ-
8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter on June 28. It clears the way for the unmanned
air vehicle to begin fleet operations and training.

The MQ-8C is to deploy aboard the Navy's littoral combat ships in FY2021, and is
intended for intelligence, and surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as precision
targeting. The airframe is the commercial Bell 407, with seats and other manned
avionics equipment stripped out and replaced with remote controls and extra fuel

Over the next few years, Northrop Grumman plans to deliver 38 MQ-8Cs to the U.S.
Navy, with some homeported on the West Coast, some on the East Coast.

Fire Scouts are now strongly linked to the Littoral Combat Ship program, which was
designed to produce a less expensive ship with a smaller crew and venture in more
shallow waters closer to shore. But it’s had troubles.

Conceived during President George W. Bush’s administration, there are two versions
of the ship: a mono-hull built by Lockheed Martin in Wisconsin, and the General
Dynamics trimarin built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala.

The LCS was envisioned as a cheap, speedy, nimble, sparsely-manned warship that
relied on robots to wage war along shallow shorelines that the Navy’s guided-missile
destroyers couldn’t enter. But by late 2016, the LCS had become a punching bag for
lawmakers who saw the program as a $12.4 billion boondoggle. Instead of replacing
the mothballed fleet of frigates or the aging minesweepers, it was seen as an under-
gunned sitting duck.

The LCS program was in stand down mode for 19 months as Navy leaders tried to
overcome cost overruns, technology glitches and leadership snafus.

But the combination of the over-the-horizon Fire Scout and the Raytheon/Kongsbert-
made Naval Strike Missile may end ensuring the future of the LCS.

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