Twitchy about Drones

22.02.07

Categorie: Air, Industry, Robots |

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

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12 Responses to “Twitchy about Drones”

  1. Good one!

    What do you think about BAMS reprising the old turboprop versus jet debate for the maritime patrol mission?

  2. David Axe says:

    Stephen,

    That was a major concern of many critics of the BAMS decision, but the Navy says new turbofan designs rival turboprops for endurance. But at what altitude, I wonder …

  3. I think you mean MMA. As you say, endurance may not really be a factor, especially since the jet can compensate for the loiter-time trade-off with speed.

  4. David Axe says:

    Right. MMA. Sorry. Acronym confusion.

  5. [...] Next up in the drones world: a contest to build 50 large maritime surveillance drones for the Navy. Northrop Grumman is offering its world-beating Global Hawk; General Atomics is pitching “Mariner” — a naval Predator, basically; and Boeing has proposed an, ahem, unmanned Gulfstream business jet. Word was that Boeing had stripped its drone programs of people and money in a bid to keep the X-45 alive after the Air Force bailed. Now Boeing’s drone shop is in shambles, with no X-45 and little hope of winning the maritime surveillance contract. The future is robots. And the robots are Northrop Grumman’s.  [...]

  6. [...] Related: Bill Sweetman mulls drone decision Boeing’s drone shop on life support  Navy doesn’t want to talk about surveillance drones No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  7. [...] Related: Boeing to protest drone decision? Northrop tapped to build killer drone Bill Sweetman mulls drone decision Boeing’s drone shop on life support Navy doesn’t want to talk about surveillance drones No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

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  9. [...] Related: Old planes need love Inside America’s Pacific outpost Drones to replace P-3s? No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  10. [...] Related: “This is serious.” Old planes need love Inside America’s Pacific outpost Drones to replace P-3s? No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  11. [...] Related: P-3 rebuilds botched “This is serious.” Old planes need love Inside America’s Pacific outpost Drones to replace P-3s? No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  12. [...] The Navy was a late-comer to the whole Unmanned Aerial Vehicle craze. But lately they’ve made up for lost time, with plans for a sea-scanning network of high-flying drones, and as the only service to embrace fast, fighter-like drones for the future. Now the Navy has placed a huge order for hovering “ducted-fan” UAVs originally developed for the Army’s Future Combat Systems. Flight has more: All 186 two-vehicle RQ-16A Micro Air Vehicle systems, which includes 93 ground stations, will be delivered between June and November, as the USN rapidly deploys the new hover-and-stare asset to help explosive ordnance disposal teams search for improvised bombs. [...]

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