Saturday, August 1, 2015

UAV Price Point

Insitu Inc., has received a $78M contract for the procurement of six low-rate initial production Lot IV RQ-21A Blackjack unmanned aircraft systems.  That equates to $13M per aircraft.

To refresh, the Blackjack is a small UAV of a bit over 100 lbs and a payload of around 40 lbs.  This is a really tiny aircraft!

What’s the relevance, here?  Well, there is a school of thought that claims that UAVs, be they UCLASS/UCAV or whatever, will be significantly cheaper than corresponding manned aircraft.  That’s absurd, of course.  If they’re corresponding then the cost would correspond, also.

In any event, here’s a data point.  A 100+ lb UAV costs $13M each.  If that cost scales up to, say, a Predator size UAV which is 20x the weight, the cost would be $260M each.

The point is that UAVs are not going to be cheaper than manned aircraft for comparable capabilities.  Logic dictates that they can’t be and here’s an actual price point that supports that conclusion.

Face it, people.  UAVs are just as expensive as manned aircraft. 

OK, that’s sobering but not exactly earth-shaking.  Is there more to this story? 

RQ-21 Blackjack

Yes, one of the concepts for UAV utilization seems to be a willingness to throw UAVs at high value, high risk targets.  Well, from a pilot safety perspective that’s certainly valid.  However, we see that the type of UAV that can cover a thousand miles and return, carry a significant payload, and have a significant degree of stealth so that it has a chance to survive to reach its target will be very expensive.  Will we really “throw” $200M UAVs at targets where we expect high attrition rates?


  1. CNO,

    When they say "unmanned aircraft system" they usually mean multiple aircraft (often four), ground control station, launch and recovery system, logistics support and spares.

    Clearly Predators and Avengers don't cost $260 million each.

    1. This contract was specifically and clearly for six individual aircraft. To the best of my knowledge, Blackjacks don't operate in groups and are not purchased in groups.

      More generally, if a UAV requires a ground control station or some other piece of equipment to operate then that's part of the cost.

    2. Where does it say individual aircraft? The press report says "unmanned aircraft systems".


      "TIER II - This is a combined Navy (PE 0305204N-TCS) and Marine Corps (PE 0305234M) budget submission. The Tier II/UAS will provide persistent, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) support for tactical level maneuver decisions and unit level force defense/force protection for Navy ships and Marine Corps land forces. This system will fill the ISR capability shortfalls identified by the Navy Small Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (STUAS) and Marine Corps Tier II UAS efforts. Consisting of five air vehicles, two ground control stations, multiple payloads, and associated launch, recovery and support equipment, this system will support the Navy missions including building the Recognized Maritime Picture, Maritime Security Operations, Maritime Interdiction Operations, and support of Navy units operating from sea/shore and the Marine Corps close range (<50 nautical miles (nm)) UAS enabling enhanced decision-making and improved integration with ground schemes of maneuver. This submission is the Marine Corps portion of the program and has been coordinated with the Navy budget submission PE 0305204N."

      So each system is actually five aircraft plus supporting equipment.

      $78 / 30 = $2.6 million to bring one RQ-21A into the force but less to replace just the air vehicle.

    4. It's possible that I may stand corrected. However, look at the line item costs in the doc you linked. The yearly totals are on the order of $50M. Unfortunately, I'm unsure what the line items are.

    5. The doc above is RDT&E activity. So not sure what the line items represent.

      If you search around for "Scan Eagle cost" on Google, there are numerous mentions of the air vehicle running around $100k. Full system costs are much higher. Blackjack is just Scan Eagle's big brother, so a jump from $100k to $13M would be rather... large. ;)

  2. Gray Eagle SAR,

    "The unit of measure for a MQ-1C Gray Eagle is balanced Platoons, each with four aircraft and associated support equipment and payloads to include: Electro-Optical/Infrared/Laser Range Finder/Laser Designator, communications relay, and up to four Hellfire Missiles. The Common Sensor Payload and STARlite Synthetic Aperture Radar Ground Moving Target Indicator are one per aircraft. Ground equipment per Platoon includes:
    two Universal Ground Control Stations, three Universal Ground Data Terminals, one Satellite Communication Ground Data Terminal, one Mobile Ground Control Station per Company, an Automated Take Off and Landing
    System which includes two Tactical Automatic Landing Systems and ground support equipment to include Ground-Based Sense and Avoid."

    That whole shebang has an APUC of $107 million (TY$).

    So, looking at it one way, it costs around $26 million to bring one Gray Eagle into the force ($107m / 4). However just the Gray Eagle itself costs considerably less. If a Gray Eagle was shot down, its replacement would not cost $26 million.

    1. MQ-9 Reaper SAR counts individual aircraft, not systems (but apparently includes costs for other system components).

      The 2012 SAR had each aircraft with an APUC of $29 million (TY$). But that does include the cost of the ground equipment too.

    2. The RQ-7 Shadow, a somewhat larger than Blackjack UAV costs $15.5 million per system (four aircraft plus ground equipment), but only $750k per aircraft, if you believe this link.

      So it's conceivable that the each RQ-21A airframe is considerably LESS than $750k each, since the overall system is cheaper, the aircraft is smaller and a Shadow system has four aicraft, where a Blackjack system has five.

      Assuming those Shadow numbers are right, then the aircraft account for about 20% of the overall system cost.

      If the same ratio holds true for RQ-21A, then each Blackjack aircraft only costs around $520k. ($13*0.2) / 5.

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  4. "Face it, people. UAVs are just as expensive as manned aircraft."

    Well, if you can show me the manned military aircraft that sells for $13mn I might be tempted to agree, the Hawk Trainer apparently sells for around £15mn

    UAVS arent cheap by nature, but they *could* be made considerably cheaper than is current practice.
    A "RAPTOR Pod" is an expensive piece of kit, its price doesnt change if you stick it on a UAV rather than a Tornado, but not *ALL* recon drones need RAPTOR pods.

    In my view thats the problem and there are two solutions.
    The first is we need an ultra low end capacity thats expended like munitions are.

    $2000 gets you a very good commerical drone with a 4k camera that can transmit video at 720p. That video could likely be jammed and/or intercepted pretty easily, but the drone could take off, fly a premapped route, fly back and deliver its video to a tablet over USB.
    But they would be consumed in their hundreds (thousands), lost, broken, damaged, (stolen), and I'm not sure that the armed forces as constituted could deal with that, but thats not a UAV problem, its a doctrine problem.

    The second is that we need a "Low End" drone, FAR FAR FAR lower end than the 16/15 / 35/22 low end.
    The Black Jack isnt "cheap", but it is "cheaper".
    The UK recently bought a new fleet of light recon helicopters, £27million each to buy and around £40k per hour to fly. Most of their lives will be spent going taking a look at semi suspicious fishing boats and providing over watch for boarding parties that pop over to say hello, something the black jack could do just as well for considerably less.
    It cant replace the helicopter, but it can hugely cut the costs of helicopters.

    Grey Eagle is of little to no use in a real war, but leading up to a real war.

    Well, Sol over at SNAFU is worried that the Chinese will soon be able to do that the Soviets never could, maintain 24/7/52 reliable eyes on the Super Carriers.
    I think thats a little extreme for now, but, theres a serious risk presented by HALE UAVS as persistent intelligence assets.

    1. "Well, if you can show me the manned military aircraft that sells for $13mn I might be tempted to agree..."

      If it were possible to build a manned aircraft the size of a Blackjack it would cost about the same. A UAV with the same capabilities as an F-35 would cost the same as an F-35. That's just simple logic.

    2. "...we need an ultra low end capacity thats expended like munitions are."

      I think you're essentially describing my two-tier, war-peace structure so I agree. The problem with those simpler systems is that we're using them and training with them as if they'll be a survivable, effective part of high end combat.

    3. IDK, you can buy an entire C295 for about ~30mn, and a super tucano for ~10mn, and a scorpion attack jet for 20mn, and ahrlac is quoted as costing <10mn. F16s inflation adjusted cost abour 35mn, the GA Avenger UAV is supposed to cost 10-15mn right, and the global hawks maritime version 40mn (somehow that jumped to 200mn like the F35 did).

      So this is clearly Over Priced IMO. Like most US military equipment, it doesn't exist to provide national security, it exists to produce profit. I don't believe for a second that these cost more than 100k ea to produce. Just an oversized, glorified RC plane.

  5. "In any event, here’s a data point. A 100+ lb UAV costs $13M each. If that cost scales up to, say, a Predator size UAV which is 20x the weight, the cost would be $260M each."

    Didn't realise you boys purchased drones by the lb

  6. Predators don't cost 200M, no where near close. That little drone, it probably costs a few thousands to produce, it's just corruption. That is all, every single us military program goes way over budget/time and under performs, its just the way of life. Wouldn't read into it too much, I am sure there are rolls of toilet paper that they have paid thousands of dollars for, its just how things are.

  7. Back in 1986 I had a discussion at HQMC about Drones. This was right after the Israelis had used video camera drones so effectively to find AAW batteries. Not their $5K Airframe was carrying a $5K camera and $5K in radio and was remotely piloted.

    The Action officers wanted to put an ELINT package on a $5k Drone. I said let's take this apart. You want to put an $500k ELINT package on a $5K Drone? Where are you going to fly it? This side of the FEBA or Beyond? If it is this side of the FEBA you will probably need a $1M package to get the range (Sensitivity) you want. Second are you going to have it return and land so you can download the tape? No, you want realtime data so it has to broadcast the result over Radio? An directional Datalink? No a general purpose UHF Omni directional radio. That is like saying here I am shoot my $500-$1M package out of the sky. Lastly how are you going to get precision location and heading data (this is before GPS was widely available)? An INS Package will run am additional $250k.

    The answer? Sometimes you have to play (i.e., spend precious USMC R&D $) to get any seat at the table.

    So no CONOPS that answered the difficult questions and instead bureaucratic maneuvering. I think you will find that is what is still going on in the UAV/Drone space. Someone please prove me wrong.

  8. I’m not really sure right now if we are trying to REPLACE manned platforms directly with UAV. There may be 1 or 2 examples where you could argue we are headed in that direction slightly. But on the whole UAV are bringing new capabilities, or that’s the way I see it really.
    Scan Eagle (Blackjacks little brother) provides a long range long endurance dedicated recon capability to frigate sized ships and up. This simply hasn’t been there before.
    Same story for platoon level UAV. Never have we had a dedicated, on the ground platform.
    Most UAV that do offer an equivalent capability offer it at significantly less per flight hour than their manned equivalent. Predator armed recon springing to mind.
    The manned equivalent still exists, (and should continue to I think) but just gets used less now as their flight hours are more expensive.
    I think what we are seeing is that new capabilities cost more, and the number of flight hours are going up and up.
    Once we see a UAV that can surpass a manned platform (multi roll F35 say), we will naturally see it become more expensive. And until a UAV can surpass the manned platform, what would be the point ?

    1. Everyone should read the new book Ghost Fleet for some interesting ideas on the use of drones, and many other new technologies. Not as entertaining as Tom Clancy but worth the read due to the thinking required to analyze what might work and what might NOT.

    2. Ben, the UAV debate in this context is about the high end UAVs like the Navy's UCLASS/UCAV. Small UAVs like the Scan Eagle are niche products, though useful, to be sure. This discussion is about the deep penetrating, ultra stealthy, A2A capable, autonomous wonder aircraft that so many people seem to want. My premise is that that kind of capability with come with same price tag that a manned aircraft would, or more. If we want a UAV that's a combination of F-22, F-35, and B-2 then we can expect to pay heavily for it. Simply removing the ejection seat from an aircraft doesn't magically lower its price.

    3. LOL, yes I think you’re right. It is of course a lot more than the ejection seat. But the amount you have to add in terms of sensors and computing, price wise is going too far outstrip life support and GUI interfaces I would think.

      What interests me on this point is that so far UAV in the class you describe have been relatively small, I would have expected the amount you have to put back in, after you remove the pilot et al, to be heavier \ larger ?

      Although to be honest we are only just getting our head round “sense and avoid” so I have to conclude we aren’t anywhere near replacing the pilot 1 for 1 in terms of basic capability.

      I’m going to predict that future UAV in the class you’re talking about are going to outstrip even F22 price tag, and that is going to be a big issue.

      I’m hoping the price is justified by capabilities, and not just our growing political aversion to casualties?

    4. CNO said, "If we want a UAV that's a combination of F-22, F-35, and B-2 then we can expect to pay heavily for it."

      Who wants that? That would be expensive.

    5. That's exactly what Congress and a very large and vocal faction of the community at large want the UCLASS to be. That's why the program has ground to a halt pending resolution of that debate.