Defense Department Wants Cargo Drones For the Pacific
CINCINNATI, Ohio – Promoting the development of cargo drones will be the focus of next year’s operational energy capability improvement fund, according to a Defense Department official.
“The [fiscal year 2016] theme for OECIF is unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Steve Mapes, deputy director for expeditionary operations in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for energy plans and programs. “What we’re talking about is unmanned aerial vehicles for resupply.”
OECIF provides seed money to programs that could potentially improve the energy usage of deployed forces or deliver long-term cost savings.
By using UAVs to transport cargo “you can take those trucks [that would normally have to be used to transport supplies] off the road or you can navigate or circumvent bodies of water without having to send actual forces or troops or ships” to deliver materiel, Mapes said Aug. 25 at a National Defense Industrial Association power conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.
OECIF investments in 2016 would be “targeted specially toward the Pacific,” which presents unique logistical hurdles because of its vast size, Mapes said.
“Tyranny of distance right now is hands down one of the most challenging things we have to deal with, particularly in the [U.S. Pacific Command area of responsibility],” he said. “We rely heavily on host nation agreements. We rely heavily on our joint partners to move equipment and assets from point A to point B. But one of our major defense challenges is just distance.”
As a solution, he envisioned launching supply drones off ships. “We’re talking cargo aircraft that can navigate from a ship-based platform [and] … allow us to navigate that distance without bringing that ship right up to the coast,” he said.
The planned investment reflects an expansion of the roles of unmanned aircraft, which are known for intelligence gathering and precision strike capabilities.
“They’re not exclusively for … surveillance or reconnaissance,” Mapes said. “We’re developing UAVs specifically for logistics.”
Although the focus right now is on the logistical needs of PACOM, Mapes suggested that cargo drones could be useful in other regions as well.
“We’ve got a lot of analysis on UAVs and the efficiencies to be gained and the application in a variety of" areas of operations including the Middle East and Europe, he said.
The Marine Corps famously first used unmanned cargo aircraft to resupply forward operating bases in Afghanistan. The K-Max rotary wing aircraft, a Lockheed Martin and Kamen Aerospace product, was used on a temporary basis under a joint urgent operational needs statement. However, it did not transition to a program of record.
Mapes said the Defense Department will issue a solicitation in early fiscal year 2016 as part of the process of determining which programs will receive OECIF funds. He did not specify how much money will be dispersed next year. In recent years, OECIF funds have totaled tens of millions of dollars.