Procurement: September 30, 2004

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Recently, the U.S. Air Force asked manufacturers to submit proposals for providing 30 "Hunter-Killer" UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) within three years (by 2007). The response was interesting. 

The aircraft must cost no more than $10 million each. The UCAV must have a weapons payload of 3,000 pounds, and be able to carry, at a minimum, four GBU-12 (500 pound laser-guided bombs), or four GBU-38 (500-pound GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, JDAMs), or a mix of both. The UCAV must also carry several sensors, including synthetic aperture radar (a night vision device); ground moving target indicator radar; forward looking infrared system (heat sensing camera); daylight and night videocams; a laser ranging and designation system, as well as other "multispectral sensors."

The UCAV must be equipped to send sensor data to ground stations via line of sight and satellite link, and be able to use those same links for controlling the aircraft. The aircraft must be capable flying itself to any designated point on the planet and land on a bare base (a suitable length of straight highway would do.) The UCAV must have an endurance of 30 hours per sortie. The aircraft components should be currently available items, or stuff that will be ready for regular use in the next two years. In other words, delaying introduction of the UCAV because some component is not yet ready for prime time, is not an option. 

The cost of a complete system (two aircraft, one ground station, one launch and recovery station and support equipment), must be $30 million, or less. If the aircraft is delivered on time, and performs as it should, the air force will probably double the order to 60 aircraft. But the initial contract is worth $450 million. 

The air force wants this new combat UAV fast because its the kind of aircraft that would be very useful in the war on terrorism. Army Special Forces troops, in particular, often find themselves out in the middle of nowhere and occasionally in need of a smart bomb or two. The new UCAC would be the perfect aircraft to supply that service. Currently, the air force has to send a very expensive heavy bomber (B-1, B-2 or B-52) to provide that kind of support. A 30 hour round trip sortie from the United States by a heavy bomber can cost over $400,000.

The most likely winner in this competition is General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which offered its new, five ton, prop engine Predator B. This aircraft is already flying, and costs closer to $5 million than $10 million each. Currently, the Predator B (which has been flying in combat zones since 2001), has 24 hour endurance and can carry six 500-lb. weapons. The Predator B recently demonstrated the ability to drop GPS (JDAM) guided bombs. In addition, General Atomics will have its twin-jet Predator C ready for testing in 2005.

Many of the usual suspects also responded to the air force proposal. Northrop Grumman, Aurora Flight Sciences and Lockheed Martin all proposed aircraft that were either still in development, or modifications of aircraft being used for something else. So the contract is General Atomics to lose. It will be interesting to see who gets this. Competitors can do all sorts of things to knock General Atomics out of the lead. You can promise a wish list of goodies that the key air force people would really, really like, but that Predator B does not have (and may not be practical to get into a UAV to enter service by 2007.) You can also unleash your lobbyists to get the contract changed to make it more difficult for General Atomics, and easier for a competitor. In the world of warplane procurement, the best aircraft does not always win.

 


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