On Friday the Navy released its formal request to industry for airborne drones to perform sea search missions as part of its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, or BAMS, program. The so-called Request for Proposals asks interested firms to submit drone designs to “provide a persistent maritime Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) data collection and dissemination capability to the Fleet.” The objective, the document states, is to have enough drones for a single round-the-clock orbit by 2013, and eventually enough for five orbits. That’s generally understood to mean around 50 aircraft.
There’s nothing strange about the RFP itself … but the Navy’s behavior in the months leading up to the request was supremely weird. The service has been real twitchy about BAMS, denying requests for interviews by journalists, declining to cite the expected cost of the program and releasing the RFP without a wide announcement. Contrast this to the behavior of, say, Army officials in the Future Combat Systems program or the Air Force regarding the F-35 Lightning fighter. The latter two seem to understand the value of openness and transparency when it comes to spending billions of the taxpayers’ dollars; the Navy doesn’t — at least, not as far as BAMS is concerned.
But the Navy’s skittishness makes sense, in context. The RFP had been expected weeks earlier, but got delayed when Australia, looking for drones to complement its aging P-3 Orion patrol planes, formally signed on to BAMS. The island nation will eventually spend up to a billion dollars on the program. Australia’s participation, apparently much valued by the Navy after the service failed to lure any partners in the manned P-8 patrol plane program, has reportedly forced the Navy to expect more of potential drones, since Australia’s requirements for range and sensor coverage are more demanding than the United States’. This embarrassing one-upmanship probably isn’t something the Navy wants to talk about. What’s more, press coverage might have unfavorably shaped late negotiations.
It’s more likely, however, that the Navy is trying to avoid a protest by whichever firms lose the competition. In other words, the service didn’t want to leak any information about BAMS that might even appear to influence the coming competition. This might seem a bit paranoid, but consider the case of Boeing and the Air Force’s search-and-rescue chopper competition. Last fall, Boeing snagged a contract to provide $10 billion worth of new HH-47 rescue choppers for retrieving downed pilots and stranded soldiers. But legal protests by the firms losing the competition, including Lockheed Martin and Sikorsky, have held up the program, which the Air Force says is urgent in light of the age of its current HH-60 choppers. The protesting companies say that the big Boeing bird violates the RFP’s call for a “medium” helicopter.
Three major contenders are expected in BAMS: Boeing with an unmanned variant of the Gulfstream G550 bizjet, Northrop Grumman with its large Global Hawk (pictured), and Lockheed Martin and General Atomics with a version of the popular Predator. Boeing, a latecomer to maritime drones, is widely considered the odd man out, despite that firm having stolen manned maritime patrol from Lockheed Martin when its P-8 Poseidon beat out an upgraded P-3 Orion for a 108-plane order.
–With reporting by Amy Butler