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The US Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned helicopter program will begin its initial operational test and evaluation in mid-April, and an initial operational capability for the aircraft is expected by the end of 2018.

The Program Office for Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems (PMA-266) is now supporting the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship program with older-configuration MQ-8B Fire Scouts – based on a smaller Schweizer 333 helicopter – but production on that variant has ended. The service is now about halfway through production of the MQ-8C, averaging about 4-5 aircraft annually, according to janes.com.

The C-model system is based on a Bell 407 that is a larger and more powerful air vehicle, offering improvements in range, endurance, and payload.

MQ-C can fly for 11.5 hours because the Bell 407’s passenger/cargo area was filled with fuel tanks for the Fire Scout program. Still, the larger platform presents some challenges when using it from smaller ships, according to Captain Jeff Dodge, head of US Naval Air Systems Command’s office for Multi-Mission Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems (PMA-266).

The Fire Scout weapons capability could emerge around 2023 and officials are considering a seven-tube APKWS launcher for the MQ-8C, but the Littoral Combat Ship Program has limited magazine space and the navy is still determining a proper balance between arming the ship’s own weapons and its aircraft’s weapons, Capt Dodge said.