ETV design rendering.

ETV design rendering. Integrated Solutions for Systems, Inc.

Pentagon looks beyond primes for cheaper drones

The Air Force and DIU say non-traditional contractors offer “the best chance” for inexpensive mass production.

The Pentagon has picked four non-traditional defense contractors to develop drones that can be produced en masse and “on-call,” acknowledging that industry giants might not be up to providing the relatively inexpensive uncrewed systems that are looming larger in modern war.

The companies—Anduril Industries, Integrated Solutions for Systems, Leidos Dynetics, and Zone 5 Technologies—beat out more than 100 other applicants to develop an “enterprise test vehicle” that can be built quickly and cheaply, according to today’s announcement from the Defense Innovation Unit and the Air Force Armament Directorate. 

“While the Armament Directorate remains committed to our highly-capable legacy products, we have become convinced that widening the aperture to include more non-traditional aerospace companies offers the best chance at accomplishing our cost-per-unit goals, project timeline, and production quantity goals,” Cassie Johnson, the armament directorate’s ETV program manager, said in the release.

The open-architecture drone is to fly at least 500 nautical miles, deliver a kinetic payload, and use commercially-available subsystems, according to a solicitation DIU released in September. 

The Pentagon’s current way of building drones is slowed down by “exquisite components” and “labor-intensive manufacturing processes,” DIU said. 

“Vendors are incorporating commercial off-the-shelf components wherever possible to mitigate supply chain bottlenecks and to keep costs low. Vendors will also leverage modern design for manufacturing approaches, ensuring air vehicles are not over-engineered for their intended mission, minimize use of expensive materials, and enable on-call high-rate production that is not possible with more exquisite counterparts,” today’s announcement said. 

The companies will start test flights later this summer and fall, according to DIU. After flight demos, the program will pick at least one prototype “to continue development toward a production variant capable of rapidly scalable manufacture."

The drone could eventually be a candidate for the Pentagon’s Replicator program, which aims to produce thousands of low-cost drones. While details on Replicator have been scarce, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said last month that the first Replicator drones have already been delivered to the Indo-Pacific region. DIU deferred questions on how the ETV program is linked to Replicator to OSD officials, who did not respond in time for publication.

In a statement, Jason Levin, senior vice president of Anduril’s air dominance & strike division said, “We look forward to working with our partners at DIU and the Air Force Armament Directorate to deliver a highly-producible, modular, affordable, and capable Enterprise Test Vehicle that will serve as the baseline architecture for large-scale production of next-generation airborne platforms.”

Leidos Dynetics said their ETV technology is the “perfect merger of our strike systems expertise, as exemplified by the modular, affordable and network-enabled GBU-69 Small Glide Munition, and our recent experience developing the air-launched, and air-recovered, X-61 Gremlins UAS,” Mark Miller, senior vice president for missile and aviation systems, said in a statement.

Integrated Solutions for Systems and Zone 5 Technologies did not respond in time for publication. 

At least one of the defense primes has publicly acknowledged that it won’t compete to build low-cost, non-survivable drones. After Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin lost the Air Force’s contract to build robot wingman, Northrop CEO Kathy Warden said in an earnings call that the company is “not looking to compete in [the] more commoditized part of the market that’s very low cost and not-survivable systems. That's just not our business model, and we know that. So we'll remain disciplined in where we invest in the pieces of the market that we pursue, but we think that what we provide is still highly relevant.”