In the same January speech in which US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates listed Pentagon programmes to be cut in an attempt to save hundreds of billions of dollars, several ambitious new efforts were also mentioned, including the US Army's vertical take-off and landing unmanned air vehicle programme.
Although endorsed by Gates, the army's VTOL UAV requirements are still a glimmer in the Pentagon's eye.
"There isn't a requirements document at this time," says Col Bill Morris, director of army aviation in the office of the deputy chief of staff. "There are a lot of concepts."
Tasked with writing the requirement is Col Robert Sova, training and doctrine capability manager for unmanned aircraft systems. Sova expects to have a capability development document - which lays out the key performance parameters of a system and ultimately guides its development - completed in the first half of 2011.
The army has attempted to acquire a VTOL UAV before. Known at the time as the Class IV UAS, it was part of the ultimately doomed Future Combat Systems effort, cancelled in 2009. But a future army VTOL UAV would be a "different, broader, big-army type of requirement", says Col Randolph Rotte, chief of the aviation division, US Army G-8 Force Development, not necessarily following the "very specific mission set" envisaged for FCS.
Several army officials at the AUSA Aviation 2011 conference cited a desire to fulfil certain intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) requirements with a VTOL UAV as a major driver for the new programme.
Some of the thirst for long-endurance, vertical take-off ISR is about to be quenched. The army is outfitting a US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-owned Boeing A160 Hummingbird with an autonomous real-time ground ubiquitous surveillance-imaging system payload. It will also carry wide-area surveillance and signal intelligence packages, says Tim Owings, deputy programme manager UAS for the Program Executive Office Aviation.
"We intend to deploy the single A160 to Afghanistan late this year, with two additional vehicles now under final integration deployed sometime early fiscal 2012 as a complement - one rounded quick-reaction capability," he says.
But that effort is in addition to the programme Gates referenced, Owings says. The new effort is also piquing the interest of the logistics side as a cargo-moving option. The initial inception of the new programme will also be an A160, Owings says, but only to get started. "We plan to take a parallel competitive stance for the longer-term programme."
In the meantime, the army is closely watching the US Marine Corps in its own parallel competition for vertical-lift options for cargo, Owings says.
The USMC in December set up rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin to face off for a cargo UAV contract - Lockheed with partner Kaman Aerospace and the K-Max, with Boeing to use the A160.
Each team will provide two air vehicles and three remote ground control stations for a quick reaction assessment over the summer. One team will then be selected for a six-month deployment to Afghanistan.