Mississippi To Make Northrop Grumman's Flying Spy Drones

Northrop Grumman CEO Ron Sugar and Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss, broke ground Tuesday on a $5 million center where about 40 workers will produce unmanned Fire Scout helicopters.

Powered by Rolls Royce engines, Fire Scouts can reach an altitude of 20,000 feet and reach speeds of 144 mph as they track targets with infrared sensors.

They will launch laser-guided rockets by the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems. But many unmanned air vehicle (UAV) systems are expected to do that.

The U.S. Marine Corps and Navy hope that Northrop Grumman will be able to enhance Fire Scouts that deliver critical supplies, like medicine and food, to soldiers on the front lines.

If Fire Scouts prove capable of that, it would mean fewer forays into battle zones by civilian contractors like Macon's Thomas Hamill, who was kidnapped from his fuel truck convoy in Iraq on Friday.

The Fire Scouts will be built in a 39,000-square-foot facility at the Trent Lott International Airport near Moss Point. Created and formerly built in San Diego, Fire Scouts are over 22 feet long and nine feet high. They can fly continuously for up to six hours.

Fire Scouts have had technological kinks to resolve. A U.S. Defense Department 2001 report found that UAVs had 10 to 100 times the accident rate as manned craft. That statistic prevented them from becoming commonplace in combat.

"Before the acceptance and use of UAVs can be expected to expand, advances must occur in reliability, survivability and autonomy,'' the report reads.

Despite the flaws, the report said that the Pentagon would spent more than $3 billion in UAV development and procurement over the past decade. And the report predicted the Defense Department would spend $4 billion on UAVs in the coming decade.

Although only 90 UAVs were then deployed in military actions, that number was expected to boom to 290 by 2010. The Hellfire missile was successfully launched from Fire Scouts last year.

Northrop Grumman plans to test Fire Scouts ability to deploy Brillian Anti-Armor, weaponry that tracks and pierces armored vehicles deep in enemy territory.

President George W. Bush signed the defense appropriations bill last year that allocated $86.7 million to develop eight Fire Scouts in Mississippi.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)