Sunday, July 24, 2016

RQ-21 Blackjack

The Navy and Marines have a tendency to latch onto pieces of equipment with little or no data to base such enthusiasm on other than manufacturer’s claims.  They then attempt to rush the equipment into service and do everything they can to either minimize testing or conduct unrealistic, simplistic testing in an effort to produce data supporting their equipment choice.  Unfortunately, all too often, when more rigorous testing is eventually conducted, the equipment is found to be badly flawed.  At this point, the Navy and Marines are faced with the choice of either admitting they chose a flawed piece of equipment or pouring ridiculous sums of money into frantic attempts to fix the equipment.

An example of such a story is the RQ-21 Blackjack small UAV, manufactured by Insitu Inc.  The story is detailed in the 2015 DOT&E Annual Report.

From the DOT&E report, the RQ-21 will be used to provide Marine Corps commanders and units ashore with a dedicated battlefield Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability that will reduce their dependence on higher headquarters for ISR support.

RQ-21 Blackjack

As a reminder, the RQ-21 is a UAV system consisting of five small RQ-21 Blackjack UAVs, ground control stations, launch and recovery equipment, datalinks, and multi-mission payloads

From the DOT&E report, the Marine Corps intends the RQ-21A system to have:

- The reliability to support an operating tempo of 12 hours on station per day at a sustained rate for 30 days and the capability for one surge of 24 hours on-station coverage per day for a 10-day period during any 30-day cycle

- An aircraft with 10 hours endurance, airspeed up to 80 nautical miles per hour, a service ceiling of 15,000 feet density altitude, and an operating radius of 50 nautical miles

- An electro-optical sensor capable of providing the ground control station operator team sufficient visual resolution to support classification of a 1-meter linear sized object from 3,000 feet altitude …

 - An infrared sensor capable of classifying a 3-meter sized linear object from 3,000 feet

OK.  All of that sounds good.  So what’s the problem?  Well, here is DOT&E’s assessment of the RQ-21 performance. 

  • The detachment equipped with RQ-21A is not effective in supporting the ground commander’s mission because of an inability to have an unmanned aircraft arrive on station at the designated time and remain on station for the duration of the tasked period. During the IOT&E, the RQ-21A-equipped unit provided coverage during 68 percent of the tasked on-station hours (83.8 of 122.7 hours).

  • The electro-optical/infrared sensor provides accurate target locations. While the Capabilities Production Document does not specify a threshold value for sensor point of interest accuracy, Marine Corps guidance indicates that 100 meter accuracy is sufficient to support tactical operations. RQ-21A provides a 90-percent circular error probable target location error of 43.8 meters. Such accuracy is sufficient to support targeting in a conventional linear battlefield, but does not support targeting in a dense urban environment that requires more accurate target locations.

  • The RQ-21A sensor does not meet one of the two target classification Key  Performance Parameters (KPPs) established in the Capabilities Production Document. The electro-optical sensor does not provide a 50 percent probability of correct classification for 1-meter linear objects (weapons or tools). The infrared sensor does meet the 50 percent threshold probability for correctly classifying 3-meter objects (vehicle chassis type) by demonstrating 100 percent correct classification.

  • The communications relay payload limits the commanders’ tactical flexibility and mission accomplishment. It is constrained to a single frequency in each of the two radios that are set before launch. Once airborne, operators cannot change frequencies.  …

  • The recessed, nose-mounted electro-optical/infrared payload requires circular orbits over the top of the target to maintain continuous coverage and positive target identification. The use of offset orbits results in the fuselage blocking the payload field of view for significant periods of time. These offset orbits resulted in auto-track break locks and loss of positive identification of high-value targets. There are orbit shapes that would allow RQ-21A operators to maintain continuous coverage of a target, but the current RQ-21A operating system limits operators to circular orbits.

  • The RQ-21A is not operationally suitable. The RQ-21A demonstrated a Mean Flight Hour Between Abort for the System of 15.2 hours versus the 50-hour requirement. Because of aircraft reliability, overall system availability did not meet the 80 percent KPP threshold (demonstrated value equals 66.9 percent).  [Emphasis added]

  • The average time between overhaul of the propulsion modules was 48.9 hours, which does not meet the manufacturer’s stated 100-hour capability.

  • The RQ-21A Naval Air Training and Operations Standardization manual is missing important information regarding mission computer logic. This lack of information is especially critical during emergencies where operators are unaware of which conditions enable/disable various aspects of aircraft functionality. This lack of system operations information contributed to the loss of an aircraft during the first IOT&E flight.

  • Extended logistics delay times and production quality control issues contributed to the system’s poor reliability and availability. In six instances, aircraft spent time in a non-mission capable status while awaiting spare parts. Incorrectly assembled/configured components received from the manufacturer increase the maintenance time to repair or replace components, resulting in reduced mission availability.

  • The system has exploitable cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

You caught the part about the RQ-21 being not operationally suitable?  Overall, that’s a pretty poor assessment for a piece of equipment that has reached the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E) stage.

IOT&E should be the final, almost rubber stamp, demonstration for a system that has gone through extensive development and had all the bugs worked out of it.  Instead, the RQ-21 doesn’t even come remotely close to being what was desired.  How does this happen?

The military latched onto this without demanding proof of performance.  That’s bad but they made it worse by programming it into the force structure, untested.  Essentially, the military is buying equipment sight unseen, based on nothing more than sales brochures.  We’ve witnessed this phenomenon play out with the LCS.  The Navy committed to 55 LCS before the first was even designed, let alone tested in the form of a prototype and we’ve seen the results.

The RQ-21 might, someday, with enough work, become the system that it’s advertised to be.  At that point, it might make sense to acquire it – but not before.  Worse, the military is pouring money into testing and fixing the system.  Here’s a shocker – that’s the manufacturer’s job!!!  If the manufacturer wants to sell a small UAV then the onus is on them to build a working prototype and thoroughly test it so as to be able to provide actual performance data to the military, not made up sales brochure numbers.  There is no need for the military to fund the manufacturer’s development effort.  Do you have any idea how many small UAV companies and products are available?  If the manufacturer can’t or won’t offer a proven, tested, fully developed prototype then the Navy can simply move on to the next manufacturer.  This idea that the military has to pay for manufacturer’s development programs is insane.  None of us would pay for a manufacturer to develop a toaster.  We’d simply buy one that already works from some other company.

This is yet another example of a procurement system that is badly broken.  It’s one thing (though still unacceptable) when you’re talking about a carrier and there is no alternative source but for a small UAV that is offered by dozens of manufacturers, why are we jumping on the first thing we see, with no proof of performance, and paying the manufacturer to do their own job?

Come on, Navy/Marines, show us just a little bit of common sense.


  1. Why not modify the RQ-7 shadow to obtain that level of endurance? Besides endurance, I can find nothing that would support fielding a new UAV platform with the same or worse capabilities when we already have multiple platforms already.

    This a waste of resources during a period when we cannot afford to waste resources.

  2. What is it with DoD and poor engine/power reliability?

    The Remote Minehunting System is Diesel based and was so terrible the program is about to get restructured.

    The RQ-21 propulsion module was 50% low.

    Geez if we don't know by now that the engine is usually on of the most important parts of a system, then don't people read history anymore?

    Guderian said it was the second most important part of a Tank after the Gun.

    The P-51 was lousy until the Rolls Royce was added.

    The F-14 engine was a big problem.

    Those who don't ready history are doomed to repeat it - SIGH.

  3. If it can't meet the specs, and the military green lights it anyway, either they have a spec problem or a authorization problem.

    It sounds like this isn't even close.

    Are the people making the specs different than the people saying 'yes please!'

  4. the thing is this , unless you have cheap disposable drone swarm controlled by AI (with human operator controling the swarm instead of individual UAV) , the whole unmanned thing wont advance beyond today's usage pattern.

    launch and recovery of UAVs should reach a point of simplicity , maybe VLS launched UAVs and recovery by another means ?

    and then we got the possible scenario of UAV swarm against enemy's UAV swarm.. what to do if they encountered each other ? shoot lasers to blind sensors ?

  5. Why blind a UAV when you can kill it. Back in 2008 during the south Ossetia war, a Georgian drone fired a sidewinder at a Russian su-27.

  6. I think this is very disapointing. The blackjack look like a good platform. An upgraded scaneagle. I get that obviously it a different roll for USMC. But it looks rather underspeced as the scaneagle is getting a SAR radar among other upgrades.