The US Navy and US Marine Corps have decided to split a tender for a tactical-level unmanned aircraft system into two separate competitions and delayed contract award by almost a year to the first quarter of fiscal year 2009.

The revamp of the Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS)/Tier II acquisition strategy disclosed on 3 August means industry teams must pause to re-evaluate their competitive approach for a contract to supply potentially thousands of new air vehicles over the next several years.

"That [delay] changes the whole strategy that we want to pursue," says Rick Ludwig, Northrop Grumman's business development director for unmanned systems.

However, the programme has also picked up a third customer with the US Air Force, making STUAS/Tier II the first aircraft programme since the Joint Strike Fighter to attract a tri-service funding base.

The navy and USMC plan to launch the programme next year seeking an Increment 0 system to provide a day/night imaging and target designation capability similar to the Boeing/Insitu Scan Eagle system already fielded on a fee-for-service basis, according to programme planning documents released on 3 August.

The USMC intends to use the Increment 0 to support combat patrols by scanning the terrain, and using a laser to direct precision weapons to a target. The navy plans to use the aircraft to search for threats on vessels about to be boarded.

A second contract will follow in FY10 for a more capable Increment 1 system desired by the air force. The new acquisition strategy specifies that the air force can pick a different UAS for Increment 1.

The Increment 1 system's requirements are still being developed, but the air force has disclosed that it needs the STUAS/Tier II fleet primarily for the base security mission. Those functions include assessing the source of gunshots and detecting threats within the surface-to-air missile footprint of base runways.

The delay puts competitors' plans on hold for several months.

The current field includes the Boeing/Insitu team offering Scan Eagle, the Raytheon/Swift Engineering team offering the Killer Bee, AAI offering Aerosonde and MTC Technologies offering Spy Hawk. Aurora Flight Sciences and Northrop are in discussions to possibly offer Aurora's Golden Eye 80 ducted-fan UAS.

MTC Technologies is under contract with the USMC to demonstrate the capabilities of a Tier II-like system.

In addition, Boeing and Insitu has received a three-year contract extension to continue providing Scan Eagle as a service to the navy and the marines. The $18 million contract includes options that could increase the cost to more than $300 million.