Despite managing one of the most extended competitions in memory, the analysis used by the US Navy for the small tactical unmanned aircraft system (STUAS)/Tier II contract focused on a fairly simple formula.
The $43.7 million contract award to Boeing/Insitu to launch the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase with the Integrator UAS on 29 July came after three years of delays in the source selection process.
But the navy programme office's analytical technique was actually fairly simple, says Capt J P Brown, UAS programme manager for Naval Air Systems (NAVAIR) command.
Cost was the least important variable in the navy's analysis, he says. The evaluation of the contractor's past performance and experience was weighted slightly higher. But the most significant factor reviewed was the technical risk contained in each of the four competing proposals, he says.
In many ways, the evaluation criteria reflect the state of the STUAS industry, with few established players offering a wide range of aircraft with varying levels of technical risk.
The US Marine Corps and the navy certainly did not lack for options in the industry's response to the STUAS/Tier II contract. Besides the Boeing/Insitu twin-boomed Integrator, unveiled three years ago, three other teams submitted proposals.
AAI offered the Aerosonde Mk4.7 that is only one-fifth the size of the Integrator, but is based on the proven Aerosonde airframe. Raytheon offered a 3.04m (10ft)-wide, flying-wing KillerBee-4, which was designed by Swift Engineering. Meanwhile, General Dynamics and Elbit Systems created a joint venture called UAS Dynamics to offer the Storm, a renamed version of the Elbit Hermes 90.
Brown says he can still not "discuss particulars of the source selection process", but it is clear that Integrator scored highest among the bidders in terms of technical maturity to win the contract.
By claiming the STUAS/Tier II programme of record, Integrator wins the most significant contract to date in a market that could be worth as much as $1.5 billion, according to Ron Stearns, research director at Seattle-based aerospace consultancy G2 Solutions.
The market includes potential new orders by the US Army and Air Force. The latter originally signed on to the navy-marine STUAS/Tier II programme as an observer, but so far has not committed to acquire the same kind of aircraft. Army officials have expressed interest in an aircraft in a smaller size class than Integrator as a battalion-level surveillance asset.
The exact size of the STUAS/Tier II deal itself remains open to debate. The request for proposals issued last year by the navy asked the bidders to submit cost estimates based on a production run of about 200 aircraft. Factored into that number are 32 systems of four aircraft each for the marines and 24 systems of three aircraft each for the navy.
Since the release of the RFP, the navy has not amended the numbers. But programme officials believe that 200 aircraft is the minimum number that could eventually be required.
Indeed, Insitu chief executive Steve Sliwa told reporters after the contract award announcement on 29 July that he understands navy officials believe demand for the Integrator will be much higher than currently forecast.
On the other hand, neither the marines or navy have committed to purchasing specific numbers beyond the EMD phase. As many as 20 Integrators could be purchased by the marines within the next six months for immediate deployment into operations.
So far, that is the only published number associated with numbers of production aircraft for STUAS/Tier II.
The navy also has obscured its own intentions in the STUAS programme. For example, the EMD phase is focused on establishing the Integrator on the navy's L-class ships - the small-deck carriers operated by the navy to support marine amphibious and expeditionary operations.
It is not clear when the same aircraft will replace the Insitu ScanEagle aboard the navy's own ships, especially the destroyers and cruisers that cannot accommodate the Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout. STUAS also is expected to be equipped on naval special warfare ships, as well as a new class of riverine vessels.
If the navy has a schedule for integrating STUAS on its own ships, it has not been published. Meanwhile, navy budget documents have proposed an alternate design called "STUAS Lite". Storing an aircraft the size of Integrator is known to be a problem on destroyer-class ships, which could drive the navy to acquire a smaller aircraft for that purpose. Insitu officials, however, have said that Integrator's storage system can be adapted to fit aboard all of the navy's ships in the future.
The STUAS and Tier II fleets allow the navy and marines to own a close-range surveillance aircraft that can scan for threats around the ships. It is a role that has largely been defined by the ScanEagle, which has been deployed aboard US ships since 2005 as a leased, contractor-operated service.
With Integrator's larger size and payload bay, the STUAS and Tier II mission will expand to provide a suite of intelligence-gathering sensors on board the same aircraft. Integrator's twin-booms are also designed to carry miniature munitions, adding a strike capability.
For all the attention focused on the aircraft, NAVAIR hopes industry's focus shifts from offering small UAS platforms to developing payload applications to support the Integrator. "From my viewpoint the aircraft are trucks," Brown says. "It's about the payloads. What I foresee is payload integration on platforms."
Sliwa adds that the Integrator is designed to support "plug-and-play" payloads. As part of the contract, Insitu delivers the Integrator's payload specifications to the navy and marines, which can release that information to suppliers. Any new payloads that comply with the size, weight and power limits of the Integrator's payload bay can be supported, Silwa says.
The contract award followed a lengthy series of delays starting from August 2007. At that time, the Marine Corps was nearing a decision for the Tier II contract and navy officials were preparing to release an RFP for a STUAS contract. But senior navy acquisition officials decided to combine the two requirements into a single contract, with contract award expected in 2008.
An internal dispute arose between navy and marine officials about the requirements for the combined STUAS/Tier II requirement, which pushed the contract award schedule to September 2009.
Meanwhile, the competitive landscape continued to shift. Boeing acquired Insitu as a stand-apart subsidiary in 2008. Northrop Grumman formed a joint venture with Swift Engineering, but allowed Raytheon to offer the company's KillerBee-4 design for STUAS.
When the RFP was released last year, the navy received interest from companies offering at least 11 different unmanned aircraft. After the deadline closed, however, the navy received only four bids.
More recently, contract award was officially delayed from September to the second quarter of fiscal year 2010, which officially ended on 30 June. In early May, a senior NAVAIR official said contract award was imminent, but was delayed due to concerns about potential protests.
The contract was finally awarded during the last week of July, or nearly three years after the Marine Corps attempted to sign the Tier II contract. It was also more than 10 months after the planned award date when the RFP was released last year.
Brown explains that the major cause of the delay was a decision made by senior navy acquisition officials to tweak the source selection process. In the original RFP, Brown's office proposed skipping a step involving face-to-face discussions with bidders.
At some point during the evaluation process, NAVAIR decided to reverse that decision and hold meetings with each of the companies that submitted bids, Brown says. He has declined to explain the reason for changing the evaluation process.