When we discussed ISTAR in the Future of the RAF series I looked at the role of manned ISTAR versus unmanned and wrote that there was still a role for manned aircraft, operating costs, satellite bandwidth frugality and the ability to fly in complex airspace being just two advantages they have over current UAV’s.
The UK has been flying the King Air based Shadows, Defenders, the Sentinel and Diamon DA42′s in this role for some years.
The DA42 is also available from Aurora Flight Sciences in an optionally manned variant called the Centaur which combines the best of both UAV’s and a manned aircraft.
What characterises all these aircraft is that they are variants of already existing aircraft, there is of course nothing wrong with that but Northrop Grumman have in the last few days released details of a purpose built, optionally manned, armed ISTAR aircraft called the Firebird.
It is aimed squarely at the Heron/Predator market but designed specifically to offer lower costs and easier payload integration with the added benefit of optionally manned operation for short duration missions or transits through restricted airpsace. It is designed to loft multiple payloads up to about 550kg, fly at 30,000ft and with an endurance of up to 40 hours. One of the most attractive features is the ease by which multiple payloads can be quickly integrated, a great deal of thought has gone into the open electronic architecture.
In what I think is a noteworthy trend, the Firebird is an aerial pickup truck onto which multiple payloads or loaded, these can be combinations of SIGINT, electro optical, radar based or communications. Firebird also has a pair of hardpoints for weapons carriage.
It will all come down to cost of course but it is interesting nonetheless.
It reminds me of another Grumman aircraft, the OV-1 Mohawk