In January, the U.S. Special Operations Command put out a notice advising industry that it was planning a “full and open competition” for a new Mid-Endurance Unmanned Aircraft Systems platform to add to its arsenal of secret drones and surveillance equipment.
Draft versions of the Request for Proposal came out in late March and early April, with a formal RFP released on April 28. Since pretty much everything about the program is classified—other than the fact that it exists—all we’re left with are the hints dropped in the announcement.
Currently, the Mid-Endurance Unmanned Aircraft needs of the Special Forces, as far as we know, are being met in part by the ScanEagle made by Boeing, which is referenced at the top of the solicitation. In 2009, Boeing and its subsidiary Insitu signed a deal worth $250 million to operate ScanEagle systems for the Special Operations Forces “for the next five years”—so it doesn’t look like the ScanEagle is going anywhere. But what sort of upgraded capability is USSOCOM hoping to get with this new program?
The public solicitation says that USSOCOM is looking to award “a single, three-year, Indefinite Delivery-Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) contract … with projected award by 30 June 2011.” And it needs the winning bidder to be capable of providing the “near real time feed of ISR product availability from 300 to 900 hours per site monthly” using “non-developmental contractor-owned and contractor-operated unmanned aircraft systems.”
The ScanEagle, for its part, has proven itself remarkably effective across a range of missions from the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan to hunting pirates at sea—even flying from the USS Bainbridge while assisting in the rescue of captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk-Alabama who had been taken hostage by Somali pirates. (A mission that SEAL Team 6, the guys that took out bin Laden, reportedly had a hand in.
ScanEagle image provided by US Navy of the lifeboat in which Somali pirates held Richard Phillips.
All of this operational experience adds up. In March 2010, it was estimated that ScanEagle was at the time flying a full 22 percent of the total 550,000 hours logged by the U.S. military’s unmanned aircraft fly annually. A few years ago, a ScanEagle was even launched off of a special warfare boat by Navy Special Forces.
So, what’s next?