Drone Manufacturers Prepare for Protracted Slowdown

By Valerie Insinna

The downward trend in military unmanned air vehicle acquisitions will continue into the next fiscal year, officials said.

Procurement of UAVs has slowed to about 50 percent of what it was at its all time high in 2011, said Dyke Weatherington, director of unmanned warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance at the office of the secretary of defense. Although he did not provide specific figures, he believes that reductions will continue into fiscal year 2015.

"This latest [fiscal] situation is not unicorns and candy and rainbows,” said Col. Bill “Sweet” Tart, director of the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft capabilities division. He advised companies to focus on the military’s stated requirements.

Officials discussed the business environment Aug. 13 at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Washington, D.C.

Even though budget pressures and the end of two wars are driving down purchases of unmanned air systems, officials from the Navy and Marine Corps detailed upcoming opportunities for industry.

The Navy in September is scheduled to release a draft request for proposals for an armed drone that can autonomously operate from an aircraft carrier. Defense contractor heavyweights such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are all planning to bid on the contract for the Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS.

Over the past decade, the Navy has relied on manned aircraft for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions, said Capt. Chris Corgnati, branch head for the unmanned aerial systems requirements and resources in the office of the chief of naval operations. Once UCLASS is developed, F/A-18 fighters onboard an aircraft carrier will be able to focus on other missions while drones pick up intelligence.

UCLASS is the only naval drone requirement not under contract. Other Navy UAS currently in development are the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and the MQ-4C Triton surveillance aircraft, both by Northrop Grumman. The Navy also plans to buy the Marine Corps’ small tactical UAS, which is manufactured by a Boeing-Insitu team.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps has commissioned a study on whether the service needs to develop a replacement to the K-MAX unmanned multi-mission helicopter used to deliver supplies in Afghanistan, said Lt. Col. J. Graham Hamill, the Marine Corps’ UAS requirements officer.

"If we have a case that says the requirement is validated, we will go forward with the requirements process. We might team with our other partners — the Air Force, the Navy, obviously the Army — and see what can be done,” he said. “But I don't see the Marine Corps developing a program of record completely by themselves. It's just not going to happen in this environment."

The service is also looking at whether unmanned aerial systems can help to fill capability gaps when its EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft runs out of service life in the late 2010s.

The Air Force did not elaborate on what next-generation drones it would be looking to buy over the next decade, but Tart said its upcoming "RPA Vector" report details what capabilities the service would need in the future. The report is slated for release in late September.

The military’s drone requirements in the last decade have been driven by the needs of combatant commanders in war zones, but it is shifting to a more deliberate joint acquisition process, said Eric Matthewson, Boeing’s director of business development for unmanned systems. "Some of that's going to be frustrating, cause it might take longer, but in the end, it's a better value for the government."

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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