Leased Unmanned Systems Providing Flexible ISR for Special Operators
For over half a decade, Special Operations Command has employed unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets through an atypical program for the Defense Department.
Contractors rent out their aircraft to small units, but maintain full control of the systems in what are known as company-owned/company-operated ISR services. Though companies suffered growing pains in the beginning, industry executives said such arrangements have become a valuable and productive way of providing crucial services to SOCOM and other defense agencies with tight budgets and rapid technology turnover.
In June 2017, the command awarded indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contracts to Insitu Defense, Textron Systems and Arcturus UAV as part of the the mid-endurance unmanned aircraft system III — or MEUAS — program, a follow-on to the MEUAS II contract awarded in 2012. Through the contract, which has a cost ceiling of $475 million over 54 months, each company provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance services via their platforms, said David Phillips, vice president of small- and medium-endurance unmanned aircraft systems for Textron.
This arrangement provides SOCOM with “an organic capability … without necessitating them to go buy a system,” Phillips told National Defense. “In some cases, they will buy assets, but in unmanned aircraft systems, they pretty much said, … ‘We don’t want to own them; we want to be able to change requirements every several years as opposed to having to deal with obsolescence.’”
Insitu, a non-integrated subsidiary of Boeing, helped to pioneer the company-owned/company-operated model for ISR services in the early 2000s, said Don Williamson, vice president and general manager of Insitu Defense. The company currently provides its RQ-21A Blackjack system to the Marine Corps under a program of record, and the ScanEagle platform to SOCOM under the MEUAS III contract, he said.
Textron provides its Aerosonde small unmanned aerial system to Special Operations Command under the contract. Arcturus UAV did not respond to requests for comment.
The model works well for unmanned systems for use by small units, Williamson noted. “The technology changes so fast that … it can really be an advantage not to have to invest in the platforms and just let industry set the pace of the technology maturation,” he added. Once a task order is awarded, the contractor will send out a team to operate the system within the unit, he noted.
For squads that need a dedicated UAS platform, it may make sense to own systems — as the Marine Corps did for the Blackjack, he noted. “But if you want the ability to surge, then ISR services [are] a great way to do it.”
Phillips noted that such a contract places more responsibility and risk on the contractor than in a standard acquisition, but that five years after the initial IDIQ contract, Textron has become comfortable with the arrangement.
“If we control literally 100 percent of the operation of our system, that’s a good model for us,” he said.
Textron’s Aerosonde and Insitu’s ScanEagle are both runway-independent and capable of carrying a variety of ISR payloads. Aerosonde is deployed from a catapult-launch trailer that also converts itself into a net to land the aircraft, Phillips said.
Insitu’s ScanEagle and Integrator — the commercial version of the Blackjack — deploy from a pneumatic launcher and are captured on a sky hook, Williamson said. Runway independence is important for small units because forward operating bases are typically very small and will often lack airstrips, he noted.
Special ops ISR mission requirements have changed since 2012, and Aerosonde’s capabilities have changed with it, Phillips said. Back then, many missions simply required an electro-optical/infrared camera that could provide real-time, full-motion video.
Miniaturization of technologies and new advanced cameras have led unmanned system operators to develop more multi-mission capabilities into their platforms, he added. Aerosonde can now carry electronic warfare, signals intelligence and tactical communication relay payloads, among others in a single sortie, he said.
Along with continuing to use ISR services, small units will also benefit from weaponized unmanned aerial systems as they fight battles in urban areas and against insurgent groups such as the Islamic State, according to one company.
Duke Robotics, a Gulf Breeze, Florida-based advanced robotics firm, has developed the Tikad, a fully robotic weapon system on an airborne platform, whose services could help relieve small units, said Raziel Atuar, the company’s CEO.
The remotely operated platform is capable of carrying various weapon payloads and can shoot down other drones, according to the company.
Atuar, who served in the Israel Defense Forces special missions unit, noted that, “10 years ago, we couldn’t even dream about having such ... technology in our reach as an operator.”
Atuar declined to comment on whether the Tikad was currently being used by the U.S. military or other federal agencies, but said the organization had developed a strong relationship with the U.S. government.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense recently endorsed the Tikad as a “weapon of the future” set to be integrated into the Israel Defense Forces, he noted.
Small units around the world could benefit from a weaponized unmanned aerial system such as the Tikad, he noted.
“The war on terror is very similar no matter who you are,” he said. “The stories of the warfighters that I met, … it’s similar to our experience.”
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