The RQ-21A BLACKJACK is supported as a Program of Record for the US Marine Corps (USMC) and one unspecified US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) component command. Prime contractor Insitu Defense (a Boeing company), has completed the production phase of the latest (August 2018) US DoD contract, with 31 systems, with five aircraft per system, having been delivered to the department – 21 to the USMC and 10 to a SOCOM component command.
Don Williamson, Vice President and General Manager of Insitu Defense, outlined the capabilities of a baseline BLACKJACK aircraft delivered to the SOCOM component command. On the front of the aircraft is a day-night imager to provide full motion video, and a communications relay payload in the aircraft cargo bay. The community expert added: “The US Special Forces customer is aggressively moving forward to expand the baseline, looking at a variety at a different optics with a growing interest in making the aircraft multi-intelligence capable – we’re always looking at different, mostly signals intelligence, payloads.”
While Insitu obtains RQ-21A payloads from the US government, the company also maintains a wide array of direct industry suppliers. Several current companies providing content for the BLACKJACK in service with the SOCOM component include Hood Technology (Hood River, Oregon) for optical solutions, and L3 Harris for the communications relay payload. The SOCOM customer has further indicated to Insitu its interest in equipping its RQ-21As with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging).
MONCh asked Mr Williamson whether the SOCOM customer’s interest in more and complex payloads may be a forcing function to a larger RQ-21 airframe. He replied: “We have seen with the maturation of technology some of these very complex payloads and they are now available in much smaller form factors. Beyond size, they are operating on much less electrical power and with smaller antenna apertures.”
This question was the genesis for Insitu arriving at its SCANEAGLE 3 platform solution, which is between the SCANEAGLE and BLACKJACK in size and operational capability. At this SOFIC, Insitu will also be introducing its SCANEAGLE 3 to the SOF community. The aircraft is a non-ITAR (US International Traffic in Arms programme) platform, vital to looking for new customers elsewhere around the world. Mr Williamson spoke to this opportunity: “We will be having a SCANEAGLE fitted for SOCOM’s use, and we’ll add in a few, specific technologies, Selective Availability Anti-spoofing Module (SAASM) GPS, is among them – you will see that at the display booth.”
Of further interest to current and any other SOF customer, is Insitu’s ongoing collaboration with its SOCOM component command customer to develop a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) kit. The VTOL capability will allow the operator to be more mobile and expeditionary, and greatly increase their battlefield presence. “We’re looking for our first BLACKJACK VTOL flight late Summer or early Fall of this year,” revealed Mr Williamson.
SOCOM is seeking to move beyond BLACKJACK and other current UAS platforms in its air order of battle, initially hosting an Industry Day market research event this January for its Mid-Endurance Unmanned Air System (MEUAS III) Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) services (UAS/ISR) follow-on contract – MEUAS IV. This 6 May the command posted for industry’s awareness, its technical requirements and schedule for the programme (https://www.fbo.gov/index.php?s= opportunity& mode=form&id= d28485ac 260218ef7a1c566ac3897b53&tab=core&_cview=1). “USSOCOM is a core customer and we’ll be aggressively looking to meet those requirements,” the Insitu executive concluded.