A pair of contracts now in competition - for the US Navy and Marine Corps' small tactical unmanned aircraft systems (STUAS) and the US Air Force's MQ-X requirement - will define two key roles for unmanned aircraft systems operated by US forces for possibly decades to come.
Until very recently, the US Department of Defense acquired its most in-demand UAS types in uncharacteristically ad hoc fashion, rushing into the field prototypes still in development or aircraft designed for commercial purposes.
From large to small aircraft types, the demand in the field for UAS surveillance and strike capabilities has largely outpaced the DoD's ability to define basic requirements and, with few exceptions, structure competitive acquisitions.
The US Army was the first to break the mould in 2005 with the contract award for the extended range/multipurpose (ER/MP) programme to the General Atomics MQ-1C Sky Warrior, larger and more powerful than the USAF's MQ-1B, which defeated the Northrop Grumman/Israel Aerospace Systems Heron II.
But then operational demands intervened and the army was forced to rush less-capable versions of the Sky Warrior into operational service within a year of contract award.
The lack of competition or systematic planning in UAS contract awards to date is not of great concern to DoD officials. The main regret among senior officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, has been not the accelerated pace of acquisition, but the failure to respond quickly enough to meet the demands of forces in combat with insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.
By their timing and significance, the next two major contract awards have allowed Pentagon planners to more carefully define requirements for the collection of vehicles, payloads, launch and recovery units and ground control stations that comprise every unmanned "system".
Moreover, for the STUAS/Tier II and MQ-X, industry has had an opportunity to allow their products to catch up and meet a key source of growth in the years to come. For perhaps the first time since the early 1980s, DoD acquisition officers will have the opportunity to select from more than three possible bidders for a fixed-wing aircraft.
At the same time, the contract award decisions could have a dramatic impact on the still fledgling industry's maturity, perhaps forcing a consolidation of manufacturers around the winners of STUAS/Tier II and MQ-X.
The STUAS/Tier II competition is scheduled to conclude in August or September, although navy officials have recently said that the award may be postponed until after late September.
The USN and USMC have not published an estimate for total orders, but industry officials estimate a production run of 250 systems, with three to four vehicles likely for each system.
As the USN/USMC has worked on drafting requirements for the contract since August 2007, at least a dozen different suppliers expressed interest. Since the request for proposals was issued in early June, four teams are known to have submitted bids and performed flying demonstrations. Those competitors are the AAI Aerosonde Mk 4.7, the Boeing/Insitu Integrator, the UAS Dynamics Storm and the Raytheon/Swift Engineering KillerBee-4.
Flying demonstrations performed in late June and early July will not be scored in the source selection process.
The requirement is to replace the Boeing/Insitu-supplied ScanEagle, developed in the late 1990s to scout for tuna fishing boats in the North Atlantic but adapted for military service in Afghanistan and Iraq for the USMC starting in 2004.
With five years of operational experience, the USN and USMC have issued requirements for an aircraft at least triple the size of the 18kg (38lb) Scan Eagle airframe. The services want an aircraft that can operate up to 4km (2nm) from a either a land- or ship-based ground control station. The aircraft should provide at least 10h endurance, with up to 24h desired, providing full motion video throughout the flight.
The current schedule calls for initial operational capability in fiscal year 2012, but the USN and USMC added a requirement to the request for proposals in early June that would allow a contract to propose delivering five systems by the third quarter of next year.
The USAF has launched the first step in the process of finalising the requirements for the MQ-X programme, which is usually the prelude to launching an acquisition programme within two to three years.
"We've already begun work - in fact, the initial capabilities document for the MQ-X has already been completed, and now it's beginning its way through the process. That MQ-X is potentially going to be our testbed for these concepts and we'll see how it goes," says Col Eric Mathewson, the USAF's UAS task force commander.
The USAF's newly released UAS flight plan up to 2047 - the service's centennial anniversary - lists several desired capabilities for the MQ-X aircraft. But the timelines for the programme remain in flux.
"I think it's a little too early to know when they're going to show up, but the analysis of alternatives is going to begin and take roughly one year. So I think you can anticipate towards late summer or the end of the next calendar year that the analysis of alternatives will be complete," Mathewson says.
The USAF first disclosed plans for an MQ-X requirement in 2004 at the Unmanned, Unlimited conference sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Chicago, Illinois. The MQ-X was named among three programmes being pursued by the Air Force Research Laboratory, with MQ-X believed to be a multirole strike platform.
The USAF had planned to acquire an MQ-X aircraft in the near term that would share many capabilities of the current aircraft performing the role - namely the Predator/Reaper series. It would be followed by a family of increasingly sophisticated aircraft designated MQ-Ma to MQ-Mb to MQ-Mc, with the latter able to fight other aircraft.
"As MQ-X analysis and development slip, more MQ-Ma capabilities can be incorporated in the design of MQ-X," the flight plan says.
As developer of the Predator/Reaper series, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems was among the first to anticipate the air force's requirements and respond. The company has already test flown a prospective platform for MQ-X called Predator C, which blends stealth and a jet engine into a platform resembling Predator-series aircraft.
The Predator C achieved first flight in early April and was unveiled to the public about two weeks later.
In a recent interview, the company's chief executive Thomas Cassidy said the Predator C had not encountered any problems in the April flight tests. The aircraft is in the process of having weapon stations installed. In late August or later, Cassidy said, the Predator C will return to fly to expand flight envelopes for altitude and airspeed.
When the USAF originally proposed an MQ-X requirement, Boeing and Northrop Grumman were battling for the joint unmanned combat air systems (J-UCAS) contract with the X-45C and X-47B, respectively. The J-UCAS contract was cancelled in 2006, and both airframers have proposed reviving their aircraft designs for MQ-X.
Northrop is building two X-47B prototypes for the US Navy's unmanned combat aircraft systems-demonstrator programme. Boeing has recently revealed its internal Phantom Ray demonstrator, which reuses the X-45C airframe. Either manufacturer could also propose other designs, depending on the USAF's requirements.
Meanwhile, Raytheon has also announced its intentions to compete for the MQ-X deal. Unlike its rivals, Raytheon has not yet revealed the identity of a flying prototype, although it has shown a design concept with a conventional fuselage-and-wing aircraft powered by two aft-mounted jets. Raytheon also says that the 3.1m (10ft) wingspan KillerBee-4 could be scaled up to meet the MQ-X requirements.
Lockheed Martin has not revealed its plans for the MQ-X contest, but its Skunk Works division has revealed two unmanned surveillance aircraft - Dark Star and Polecat - in roughly the same class.