The US military, the most powerful defence organisation on the planet, is set to account for 69% of worldwide UAV procurement in the next decade, according to the Teal Group consultancy, and 77% of research and development spending. Though the US plans to withdraw completely from its two wars over the next several years, US UAVs will have a presence over Iraq and Afghanistan for decades to come. And the rise of China brings increased pressure to bear on maritime forces.
So for UAV procurement it is full speed ahead. One of the major, and possibly most transformative programmes ongoing is the long-awaited unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS), the Navy's first large-scale introduction of UAV capabilities to a seaborne fleet. The programme is still in its infancy; pre-Milestone-A efforts are ongoing. A broad agency announcement contract for study was awarded to four companies: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and General Atomics Aeronautical (GA-ASI).
Each of the four awardees has a fairly obvious contender for the role: Northrop Grumman, in particular, is flying the X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator (UCAS-D), which will be the first fixed-wing UAV to land on an aircraft carrier. Boeing's similar entry is the Phantom Ray, currently in testing at Edwards Air Force Base. GA-ASI can enter the Avenger, a souped-up, jet-powered model of the ubiquitous Predator. Yet none of the awardees has selected an aircraft to move forward in the broad agency announcement, fuelling speculation of a clean-sheet design.
Boeing's Phantom Ray is a contender for the US Navy's unmanned carrier-launched surveillance and strike (UCLASS)
"The interesting thing when you look at X-47B, which is what people thought the shape of things to come was to be, and you look at what UCLASS is, they strike me as very different," says Ron Stearns, research director at aerospace analysis firm G2. "UCLASS, it strikes me as smaller, it strikes me as longer on station, perhaps higher operation altitude, slower, and much more of an ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) emphasis."
The Navy already operates several vertical take-off and landing UAVs in the form of the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B; three are deployed to northeast Afghanistan, where they largely support Army soldiers, while one is deployed on the USS Halyburton and another, flying from Halyburon, went down over Libya in June. Despite the backlog of MQ-8Bs and an apparently forthcoming order for the MQ-8C - an improved version based on a new airframe - the navy has an open tender for a replacement. The replacement is called the medium range maritime UAS (MRMUAS), and entry into service is planned for 2018-19.
The newest stumbling block in the navy's programme is the possible inclusion of the army. The army had a similar requirement under the now-cancelled future combat systems (FCS) programme. After making do with the RQ-7 Shadow, the army has re-declared its interest and is studying a joint buy with the navy.
"We began working in earnest with the navy about six months ago when it became clear that we were both embarking down similar paths to pursue VTOL tech," says Tim Owings, deputy programme manager of army vertical take-off and landing systems. "At the time it was true and perceived that the navy was ahead of the army in the acquisition process."
© US Navy
The US NAvy operates several VTOL UAV's, including the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout
The contest is still open but several clear contenders have emerged, and first among them is Northrop Grumman's MQ-8C. The -8B, based on the Schweizer 333, has been criticised for its lack of range and carrying capacity. In response, Northrop Grumman migrated the software to another platform, the Bell 407, leading to vast increases in performance. Boeing is likely to put forward the A160, and EADS has briefed the army on its own options.
The performance specifications of the possible entries differ widely, largely because programme definitions have not yet been solidified. Requirements concerning lift capacity, endurance, range and even intended function are not yet written in stone.
"We were always going to be ISR-focused with some fairly high endurance and range. We also look at cargo and resupply as a secondary role," says Owings. "I think we're going to consider internal versus external sling load capacity and it's going to inform the decision, but not to the point that it harms the ISR portion of the contract." Both army and navy are examining possibilities for weaponisation, he adds.
The navy has another ongoing contract, the small tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS/Tier II) to provide replacements for an ISR services contract that was fulfilled by the Boeing/Insitu Scan Eagle. The winner of STUAS was selected in 2010 - Boeing/Insitu with a Scan Eagle follow-on, the Integrator. The Integrator systems, however, will not be ready for years to come.
So the navy has issued a request for information for a bridge capability to fulfil the Scan Eagle's current role, until Integrator reaches initial operating capability. The navy will award several service contracts instead of the usual single contract; it is not through fault of the Scan Eagle, the navy explains.
"The Scan Eagle system has met all requirements to date. The current ISR Services contract period of performance is coming to an end, and the follow-on contract will be competitively awarded," says Col Jim Rector, STUAS programme manager for the navy and Marine Corps. "The multiple award approach complies with DoD [Depart of Defense] acquisition regulations and policies."
There are other, less-defined programmes forthcoming. The air force will be seeking a Predator replacement with the MQ-X programme, which has few defined specifications other than a similar but improved capability. The large, stealthy Next Generation Bomber may or may not be optionally manned - the jury is still out on that, though it appears increasingly likely. The army's rotary-wing procurement roadmap lays out a scenario in which its helicopters are updated with optionally piloted capability, and new helicopters are delivered with the same capability built in.
Programs of Record represent the acquisition programmes the US military puts in the public sphere; but they are not the only programmes ongoing. Major programmes in the influential and cash-rich special operations and intelligence worlds are often shrouded in secrecy, and sometimes their very existence is classified. As such, it can be difficult to assemble a comprehensive list of open tenders for UAVs.
But it seems certain that bright days lie ahead for the UAV manufacturing business. As the military becomes increasingly familiar with them and technical maturity continues to increase, UAVs will take on more and more roles, leading to new procurement plans for innovative aircraft. Any possibility of a calming in the industry's rapid rate of growth lies beyond the foreseeable future. For now, at least, the sky is the limit.
CORRECTED: MQ-8B deployment referenced was on the USS Halyburton, not McInerny as previously stated.