Business Insider & Wired Magazine – 2011-10-31 23:53:10
The Army Just Spent $1 Billion On These Unmanned Robo-Copters
(Built by Northrop Grumman)
Robert Johnson / Business Insider
(August 18, 2011) — Intending to buy at least 100 unmanned helicopters, the US Army will spend at least $1 billion on a project slated to start early next year. According to Wired [see next story], the new choppers will be fitted with air-to-ground-missiles after one of their number became the first NATO casualty in Libya.
Check out the MQ-8B Fire Scout in Afghanistan
RQ-8A Fire Scout, Payload Demonstration Flight
After Libya Shootdown, US Robo-Copter Will Weaponize
Noah Shachtman / DangerRoom at WIRED Magazine
(August 18, 2011) — America’s only combat casualty in Libya had no way of defending itself, when it was taken out by a heavy anti-aircraft weapon in late June. But that’s about to change. After spending the last few months chasing pirates in the Indian Ocean, watching over troops in Afghanistan, and flying into a pro-regime stronghold in Libya, the US Navy’s Fire Scout robotic helicopter is poised to start test-firing rockets. By the end of next year, the drone should be fully weaponized, and ready to shoot back if it gets attacked.
It’s another step forward for the Fire Scout, the once star-crossed robo-copter that’s quickly becoming a favorite tool of the Navy, despite years of uneven history and despite a recent Pentagon test report which said the drone was missing its missions as often as it was completing them.
On June 21st, the USS. Halyburton dispatched one of its two Fire Scouts to a known stronghold of forces loyal to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The unmanned helo flew over the hostile zone, snapping video as it went and beaming the footage back to the ship. The Fire Scouts had flown as many as 15 such missions over Libya before. But this one was different. This time, the video suddenly stopped. The robo-copter’s wreckage was quickly paraded on Al Jazeera.
An inquiry later concluded that the whirly-bot had been shot down. Today, Rear Admiral Bill Shannon, the Navy officer in charge of unmanned aviation, added a bit more detail, noting that a heavy anti-aircraft weapon brought the 2,000-pound ‘bot out of the sky.
“This was not small-arms fire. There were large weapons in the area,” he told reporters at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington. “Looking at the intel, there wasn’t anything we would’ve put in there that wouldn’t have been at high risk.”
That ended the most dangerous mission so far for the Fire Scout fleet. But it’s not the only combat patrol the robotic rotocraft has conducted, of late. In Afghanistan, three Fire Scouts flew 950 hours out of a remote base in Kunduz province over the last seven months. Lately, they’ve spent more time in the air, logging north of 400 hours per month, while a team of 20 Northrop Grumman contractors and seven sailors fly and maintain the vehicles.
It’s a big crew, especially at a relatively small forward operating base. And the Fire Scout only flies for five hours at a time — peanuts compared to the near day-long missions of the Reaper robotic plane. But, unlike the Reaper, the Fire Scout doesn’t need a big runway to take off or land. Which makes it more attractive to commanders at somewhat remote outposts.
Or on ships. Another pair of Fire Scouts, on board the Halyburton, saw action from the Indian Ocean to the Straits of Hormuz to the southern Mediterranean. The copters tracked suspected pirates, and watched over a Yemeni fishing boat that had been stranded at sea for 10 days, until the Halyburton‘s crew could come over to help. All in all, the drones ran 126 missions and flew for 436 hours.
Exactly how many of those missions were productive is a matter of some dispute. According to a damning report from the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, the Fire Scouts only managed to complete half of their missions while on the Halyburton, and came up short in all 10 of their trial runs at home before the copters were shipped off to Afghanistan. In one particularly unnerving incident, the drone’s remote pilot accidentally started the self-destruct countdown counter with a single keystroke.
Shannon said that incident — and the whole report — were overblown. The drone was never in danger of committing hari-kiri. Yes, the Fire Scout still has issues with the data links between the copter and its operators. But the report’s standard for success and failure is all wrong. A relatively minor screw-up could lead to the mission being classified as a complete flop.
“If I’m out on a five-hour mission, and on the return home, there’s a 10-minute drop-out in the video — to call that an incomplete mission, that defies common sense,” he added.
Shannon’s confident enough in the copters that the Navy has asked Congress for the money to nearly double its order of Fire Scouts, to 57. The Navy could provide an additional 28 upgraded Fire Scouts to Special Operations Command over the next three years. And in the next few weeks, the Fire Scout — first envisioned as an armed drone, back in the late 90s — is going to start firing weapons again.
The first tests will be with the laser-guided Griffin missile, which carries at 13-pound warhead. Trials with the 2.75-inch rockets of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System are expected to follow. 18 months from now, if all goes according to plan, the Fire Scout will be once again on combat missions — this time, fully armed.
Drone Copter Flops Half Its Missions; Navy Still Wants More
Spencer Ackerman / DangerRoom, Wired Magazine
(July 12, 2011) — The Navy absolutely loves its robotic helicopter. In Latin American waters, the copter hovers above suspected drug smugglers to alert Navy ships about illicit cargo. The Pentagon is dead set on purchasing way more of them. Only one problem: the copter isn’t that hot at what’s supposed to be its primary task: surveillance. During a recent tour on USS. Halyburton, the Fire Scout robocopter only managed to complete 54 percent of its missions.
Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8B Fire Scout is a spy drone that can lift off from a ship’s deck. Its modular suite of cameras, sensors and radar allow the Navy to customize it to collect the intelligence that sailors want relayed back to station. Though it took a long time to find its purpose, the Fire Scout’s ability to take off and land on a moving ship make it undeniably attractive to the Navy, though it’s not cheap: each copter costs $9 million. (A Predator costs $20 million for four planes, a ground control station and a satellite link.)
But Fire Scout doesn’t make any sense if it can’t get its intelligence back to the ship ASAP. And that’s the problem, according to the Pentagon’s testing chief.
The Fire Scout can’t be trusted to “provide time-sensitive support to ground forces,” assessed Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of test and evaluation, in a June 24 report obtained by InsideDefense. Its data links are “fragile.” Launches get delayed because of the time it takes to get the Fire Scout talking to the ground control station. In other words, if you use the Fire Scout for intel, get ready to waitâ€¦ and waitâ€¦ and wait for your imagery.
To some degree, the Navy didn’t need Gilmore’s report for a warning. Days before its issue, the Navy lost contact with one of its Fire Scouts above Libya, making it an early US casualty war. The same thing happened during a test last year in Maryland. And while the Navy hyped the Fire Scout’s performance aboard the USS. Halyburton early this year, Gilmore notes that copter flubbed 46 percent of its missions.
Yet the Navy is stuck on the Fire Scout. It asked Congress this year to increase funding by $46 million and requested to nearly double its purchases to 57 of the copters. It sent Fire Scouts to Afghanistan to hunt for homemade bombs. The next big idea is to send Fire Scouts out with SEALs — who already have access to a different kind of spy drone.
What’s more, Northrop is already looking to upgrade the drone to the Fire-X, which will increase the copter’s flight time, payload and speed. Only one problem there: “97 percent of its software is rehosted” on the Fire-X, Northrop’s George Vardoulakis boasted at a Navy confab in April. After Gilmore’s report, that sounds more like a liability than a virtue.
New Report Confirms
The Army Approved Up To 5 Million Pieces
Of Worthless Body Armor
(Supplied by DHB Industries)
Robert Johnson / Business Insider
(August 17, 2011) — Through lack of testing, hurried production, and a general rush to production over five million pieces of body armor worth $2.5 billion went to soldiers between 2004 and 2006 that may well have been useless.
According to the Associated Press, these new findings come after a New York Times story showed 80 percent of marines serving in Iraq shot or hit with shrapnel in the upper body died when their armor failed.
US ground troops rely on two ceramic plates, inserted into a ballistic vest to protect their torso from injury. According to a 51-page Pentagon report, officials can’t say for sure whether the 5.1 million ceramic inserts provided any protection at all.
It’s a story that’s been told among military families for years, with reports in USA Today from 2004 showing servicemembers buying their own armor to protect themselves.
DHB Industries Ex-Chief David Brooks Looted Company, Jury Told
Sean Gardiner and Patricia Hurtado / Bloomberg
(January 26, 2010) — David Brooks, a founder and former chief executive officer of military contractor DHB Industries Inc., committed a $185 million fraud and looted the company to pay for personal expenses, a prosecutor told jurors at a trial.
Brooks and former Chief Operating Officer Sandra Hatfield are accused of insider trading as well as securities fraud and tax, wire and mail fraud for manipulating financial records to increase DHBâ€™s reported earnings and profits. DHB, based in Pompano Beach, Florida, and now called Point Blank Solutions Inc., makes body armor for the military and police.
This $2 Billion Navy Ship
(Built by Northrop Grumman)
Is Back In The Shop After
All Four Of Its Engines Fail — Again
Robert Johnson / Business Insider
(July 20, 2011) — Less than two months after the USS San Antonio was finally declared fit for duty, all four of its engines are experiencing problems, forcing it to be once again pulled from service. The $2 billion San Antonio has been plagued by problems since being commissioned, and has been out of fleet rotation for years.
A first-in-its-class, 700-foot amphibious transport, the vessel was built by Northrop Grumman and delivered to the Navy in 2005.
According to the Hampton Pilot, the ship’s first and only deployment three years ago included a week-long rest in Bahrain for emergency engine repairs and a near miss with a ship in the Suez Canal.
Problems have occurred in nearly every portion of the ship, but the engines have been stricken hardest and the Navy cancelled its contract with Earl Industries LLC over its failure to get the San Antonio running properly.
The vessel came in at $840 million over budget and when delivered, was incomplete. Admiral J.C. Harvey issued a statement from US Fleet:
In a rush to get SAN ANTONIO‘s operational capabilities to the Fleet, we overlooked a lot of very critical issues and accepted a ship that was only 90% complete and ultimately did not meet the standards of quality our Sailors and Marines need and expect of a US Navy ship.
The Navy is speaking optimistically about this round of repairs and says the ship will be ready for its 20-week pre-deployment training in August.
Newer ships in the San Antonio class are also afflicted by problems, but to a much lesser extent.
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