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Army Aviation’s $20B Pivot
Lost in the headline was the other bomb: it also pulled the plug on 19,000+ legacy drones (RQ-7 Shadows and Ravens).
ICYMI: The now-defunct $20B Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) program was intended to replace the retired OH-58 Kiowa (and canceled RAH-66 Comanche), filling a role the AH-64 Apache had been forced to fill the past few years.
BUT…the cancellation wasn’t due to budgets, poor contractor performance, or lack of need. In fact, Army aviation’s number 1 mission gap is armed reconnaissance.
There is a reason you don’t see lightly armed, manned helicopters flying around Ukraine doing reconnaissance.
Chief of Staff of the Army General Randy George stated it nicely: “We are learning from the battlefield—especially in Ukraine—that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed. Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before.”
$2B had been spent on FARA to date, and it’s easy to chuck spears at “another failed government program.” But it did not fail. In many ways, it succeeded.
Check it out: One truth about all military acquisition programs is that they are all really just trying to predict the future—sometimes decades into the future. But seldom does anyone reassess the facts and assumptions that framed the “requirements” of the original intent of the program.
Facts are facts. But equally important are assumptions—the key planning factors that must be treated as “conditional facts” to make informed decisions to navigate uncertainty. At the same time, this list of facts and assumptions also serves as a sanity check—when the facts and assumptions change, a revisit to the decision is warranted.
In this case, Ukraine provided ample examples that the operational environment has, is, and will continue to be rapidly changing—faster than any large, manned, monolithic helicopter program could have kept up with. The counter-tech was just too overwhelming.
Army leadership assessed the conditions (i.e., facts and assumptions) and decided there were far better asymmetric, cost-imposing ways to spend $20B on forward reconnaissance for the modern battlefield.
What’s Next: Big changes usually mean upsetting big players. Expect to see a full-frontal assault from Congress and lobbyists in the coming months.
Point to Ponder: This decision frees up ~$500M/year to spend on forward reconnaissance using autonomous drones and space-based sensing. Is the Army about to slingshot past the Air Force in the airborne ISR realm?
On the Radar
The Merge’s Take: For an off-board sensing program, the platform doesn’t appear to have provisions for any IRST-like sensors. That’s not the story, though. This is not a ‘program of record’ but a research effort called Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Platform Sharing (LCAAPS), which aims to build several aircraft variants from a common core chassis. The XQ-67A looks like it’s the Gambit 1. Putting the pieces together, the goal of the program is the reusable core, which means there will be other XQ-67 variants to follow. Dear Air Force: Let’s skip to the good stuff and see an XQ-67D based on Gambit 4 renderings (a B-21-looking drone).
AI drone wargaming continues to evolve the body of thought around force design and integration of various types of Combat Collaborative Aircraft (CCA).
The Merge’s Take: The blue teams in the wargame all individually settled on similar solutions. Despite a menu of CCAs to choose from, they all employed a force of less-exquisite lower-cost platforms and used them in interesting cost-imposing ways against a Chinese force. Interesting strategies were also used, like “untethering” formations of CCAs from manned platforms, breaking the ‘loyal wingman’ connotation. Check out the full report.
New weapons for the F-35 are starting to gain attention. The Navy is looking for a compact, low-cost stand-off weapon (called MACE, for Multi-Mission Affordable Capacity Effector) that can be used as a small anti-ship weapon. On the heels of that, the Air Force issued a separate notice for Extended Range Attack Munition (ERAM). It has similar desirements, but doesn’t appear suited for the same target sets.
The Merge’s Take: Weapons R&D never ends, but it’s been a long time since the US military got serious about fielding new generations of weapons. With the F-35 on solid footing and the B-21 on the horizon, the US is long overdue for an air-launched weapons renaissance. Want to feel old? The state-of-the-art JASSM stealth cruise missile started in 1995 and has been operational for 21 years.