Some Of The Pentagon’s Drones Cost Their Weight In Gold

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Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks is pushing the Replicator project down a fast track, with contractor selection expected in December. Replicator seeks to rapidly produce thousands of small, highly capable drones fat low cost. It is a feat which would be easy enough in the commercial sector but in the military it is like trying to defy the law of gravity; the seemingly inexorable cost escalation described by the cynically humorous Augustine’s Laws.

Simply, building this to military specification, and jumping through all the hoops of certification, testing and approval pushes costs up. Contactors who are on a working on a “cost plus” basis have little incentive to keep them down.

Things are different in the conflict in Ukraine, where both sides have deployed tens of thousands of small commercial drones. Consumer quadcopters costing less than $2,000 have become vital for tactical reconnaissance, adjusting artillery fire and carrying bombs. FPV racing drones costing $400 have become kamikazes able to take out tanks and other targets. Ukrainian Fundraisers United24 recently showed images of the first 800 of a batch of 3,000 FPV drones being shipped to the front line, all built locally.

Some of the Ukrainian-made models are highly sophisticated, with the sort of autonomy that Hicks appears to be seeking for Replicator.

Repeating this feat with Replicator will face a major challenge from entrenched U.S. practices. Contractors are sometimes accused of adding unnecessarily expensive components to their products to push up profits, a practice known as “gold plating.” This may be an understatement. Some drones would be cheaper if they were made of solid gold.

Short Range (But High Cost) Reconnaissance

The Skydio 2 drone, which one reviewer called “freakishly smart” thanks to its on-board AI, retailed for $999. The smarts allow it to lock on to the operator and follow them hands-free, orbiting around them or following them as they ski, bike or skate while avoiding obstacles. Unfortunately, it is no longer available as Skydio moved away from the consumer market in August.

The company instead produce the Skydio RQ-28A, a military version with features not found on the consumer model, including a thermal imager for night operations and software to pass data to military system, as well as a 35-minute flight time. The Army may also have required various other changes to meet requirements to survive in high and low temperatures and cope with electronic interference.

Such changes tend to push the price up. According U.S. Army’s current procurement budget one Short Range Reconnaissance drone set, including two drones and a ground control unit costs $39,806. That’s roughly $20k for each drone.

But the Army will end up paying a lot more for its quadcopters. The Skydio RQ-28A is already slated for replacement by a more advanced system , known as SRR Tranche 2, which may be produced by Skydio or a competitor. Tranche 2 drones adds nighttime obstacle avoidance, advanced autonomy, military grade (M-Code) GPS and jam-resistant communications, plus a flight time of 45 minutes.

These extras raise the cost to roughly $100k per drone. Assuming a similar weight to the RQ-28A — reportedly “under five pounds” or 2267 grams, the drones is about 30% less pricey than gold.

Some of the earlier Skydio consumer drones – the ones costing about $1k – are reportedly in use in Ukraine. This suggests that the extra spec is nice to have, but not always essential if cost is a factor.

Golden Goalkeeper

The Navy’s 2024 R&D budget describes a project called Goalkeeper a continuation of the earlier LOCUST. This project, short for Low Cost Uncrewed air vehicle Swarming technology involved swarms of Raytheon’s small Coyote drones launched from ships, aircraft or submarine in groups of up to 50 as kamikaze attackers.

Goalkeeper drone production is detailed in the Navy’s Ammunition Budget which shows that the first batch of 900 Goalkeeper Autonomous Weapon Systems, will cost $243m. This works out at $270k per drone.

That does not quite reach the level of gold; at 13 pounds, a solid gold Coyote would be about 50% more. According to a 2016 piece in Military.com, Coyotes then cost about $30k in today’s prices, higher specifications have multiplied the cost by several times. The price rise also explains why ‘Low Cost’ is not part of the name.

The point of Goalkeeper is to produce massive swarms of drones to overwhelm enemy air defenses. But the billion-dollar program will only deliver about four thousand drones over several years. That is far fewer drones than Ukraine uses in a single month (estimated at 10,000 by UK thinktank RUSI) and certainly not enough for a sustained campaign.

Golden Blackjacks

Moving up the price scale we find the 2017 Navy budget records the purchase of RQ-21 Blackjack drones at a flyaway cost of $16.2m per system. Each system includes five drones and two ground controllers, or just over $3m per drone. (In 2019, the U.S. approved sale to the UAE
UAE
of 20 Blackjacks plus support for $80m, or $4m per drone).

The Blackjack has a 15-foot wingspan and a flight endurance of 16 hours, with a variety of day and night sensors and communications relay gear. At 135 lbs. it comes in at about $22,000 a pound. In 2017 when the purchase was made, the price of gold was around $18,000 a pound , so the Blackjack looks like it cost more than its weight in gold.

The Blackjack is broadly similar to the larger tactical reconnaissance drones flown by Ukraine like the 122-pound PD-2, which costs around $400k or about $3,000 a pound. (The F-35 fighter, criticized by many for its cost, weighs in at around $4,000 a pound).

Can Replicator Break The Mold?

Deputy Secretary Hicks is well aware of how the cost of drone programs tends to soar. To win Replicator contracts, suppliers will need to be explain how they will keep costs down throughout the development and production process.

In November the Army’s released a document linked to Replicator asking for contractors to describe how they could supply a small drone with day/night vision and an endurance of 30 minutes for less than $3,000 a unit. That is in line with commercial drones, but bargain basement for military hardware.

Replicator has been inspired by Ukraine’s success in producing masses of reconnaissance and attack drones at low cost. But even in Ukraine there are complaints of profiteering. A Ukrainian drone operator quoted in The Guardian railed against businessmen — “small rich tsars” — who produced FPV drones for $400 and sold them to volunteer groups for $650. He would not be impressed by a $100,000 drone.

Ukraine relies on the U.S. for big ticket items like M1 tanks and ATACMS missiles which they cannot build themselves. Whether the U.S. can compete with Ukraine at the other end of the market where profits are lower is another matter.





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