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Edited by Christian Lowe | Contact

Second Guessing BAMS


I started covering the US Navy's off-again/on-again Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program about five years ago. It's been back on for two years and -- last I checked -- poised for a contract selection decision in five days.

This makes me sad because I just thought of an obvious angle for a BAMS story that I've missed somehow for the last five years.

If I had the chance to re-interview all of the competitors and USN program officials, here's the first question I would ask: Why is this a winner take-all award instead of a split-buy?

The competitors for BAMs are the Northrop Grumman RQ-4N Global Hawk (high-altitude, turbofan, active electronically scanned arrays), Lockheed Martin/General Atomics Mariner (medium-altitude, turboprop, mechanically scanned arrays) and Boeing/Gulfstream G-550 (high-altitude, turbofan, optionally manned, multiple active arrays).

Each product is basically an off-the-shelf platform modified to meet the USN's requirement. The USN is not paying to design a new aircraft. It's essentially buying a la cart. That's probably why each platform offers vastly different operational strengths and weaknesses.

This competition isn't a choice between two discreetly differerent rivals, like the YF-22 versus the YF-23. This is more like the YF-22 versus the B-1. Each platform is a completely different capability, but both are useful for their intended purpose.

I agree there are downsides to a split buy award: the upfront costs are higher than a winner-takes-all award, you lose some of the marginal benefits of commonality and training gets more complicated.

But there are other advantages. The USN would not be beholden to one contractor for BAMS for the next two or three decades, but could keep playing the two teams off each other over the life of the program. Instead of a narrowly focused solution, the USN's operators could employ the platform that makes the most sense for each mission.

Not to mention the fact that Congress tends to like split buys, as it spreads the jobs more broadly and subjects the defense industry to greater competition.

I'm not saying a split-buy is the best answer for BAMS, but rather that it's an important and seemingly logical question that I should have asked long before now.

(Full disclosure: my wife works for Lockheed.)

-- Steve Trimble


Your recommendation may actually happen ... looks like there will be a BAMS showdown over Secretary Young's memo which requires a TD phase with a two competitor prototype "flyoff" before proceeding to the SDD phase.

Posted by: John at March 13, 2008 10:57 AM

Fact is that the Carter Aviation "SRCAV' UAV [VTOL/SSTOL] will deliver far more effective--and cost-efficient--BAMS capability [as defined in the solicitation] than any of the three rivals competing for contract award. The Navy's insistence on off-the-shelf capability for the air platform is short-sighted--and will tether the capability to an airfield. Some of the contractual funds should have been set aside to experiment for an "Objective" (vice Threshold) BAMS capability.

Posted by: Mark Gay at March 12, 2008 10:36 AM

I can say that both have strengths and weaknesses. Global Hawk flies higher and out of the jet stream while predator flies alittle lower. Predator is cheaper but does not auto land like global hawk. So if you dont land at your origaional base you have to crash. Satallite operator controlled landings dont work. This is an advantage for global hawk who can land at diver fields. I can say that the global hawk has alos crashed allot less than predators. The main problem I forsee with both will be getting all of the electrical power required for the sensors that both companies are putting up.

Posted by: bob at February 11, 2008 08:32 AM

Honestly, what I think the Navy is trying to do is create a P-3/P-8 without a crew. If that were the case then the only competitor would be the Global Hawk. With the exception that you could not drop sonobouys from 50,000 feet. But you would not need sonobouys unless the aircraft was armed.

I don't know if it is a good program or not to be honest with you. I thought the ship thethered Aerostats were pretty good at what they did back in the early 90s. Then they withdrew all of them.


Posted by: DC2 Jennings at February 8, 2008 08:19 PM

If one contract bid produces three such varied entrants, it suggested to me that the problem is that the U.S. Navy has a pot of money that it isn't really sure what to do with.

This is a recipe for the really expensive kinds of missteps our military is prone to get into, not plain vanilla fraud, waste and abuse, but the syndrome of resolving uncertainty by throwing lots of money around without a precise goal that is served by doing so.

Posted by: ohwilleke at February 8, 2008 06:55 PM

Working for GA, I can tell you it is not a Predator, a Pred B aka Hunter Killer aka Reaper, or a Mariner. The only similarity between the Pred B platform are the Hardpoints. Its a new bird.

Posted by: st6ng at February 8, 2008 03:58 PM


No apologies necessary, the good thing about the Mariner is that with the ability to carry stores it could easily be modified to dispense sonobuys and other deployable sensors if needed.

Short ranges correct, I believe Fire Scout is intended for that role.

Posted by: Chris at February 8, 2008 03:05 PM


My apologies, I should have said it is more or less a Predator B.

I think the Navy is looking for a surveillance only platform. They have aircraft carriers that can perform the rest of the missions.

And again, I think for shorter ranges of UAV they are looking at UCAV and Fire Scout.

Posted by: DC2 Jennings at February 8, 2008 01:55 PM

First off, the MAriner is not "more or less a Predator" it is a modified Predator B, big difference.

As for the split buy option, that does offer some benefits but increases the lifecycle costs tremendously. Two different set of spare parts, two different set of maintenance manuals, two different set of consumables, etc.

And I strongly agree with S. Trimble, it is already qualified and ready to carry munitions so it could perform combat mission as well.

Posted by: Chris at February 8, 2008 11:18 AM

The answer to your what-if question most assuredly lies in the "Acquisition Strategy" document which was approved way back when the project got its approval. Pretty tough to change the rules of game once you start the process (ask the USAF KC-X folks!)

Posted by: leesea at February 8, 2008 11:12 AM

Mariner has speed to station limitations, compared to a Global Hawk or G550 perhaps, but it does have advantages. It's already armed, for one thing, if that ever becomes a USN requirement for BAMS. And it can operate nearer to sea level more efficiently if that's what the mission requires. And sometimes lack of speed on station is a good thing for a surveillance aircraft.

Posted by: Stephen Trimble at February 8, 2008 10:59 AM

I like the idea of using the Global Hawk for area threat detection such as in the Horn of Africa region. It can fly long ranges quickly and stay on station for a long time.

You are correct in claiming the three aircraft mentioned are complementary rather that competitive in capabilities. But the Mariner is more or less a Predator, so where would they be based from? Given that it is a turboprop you will have speed to station limitations.

It might also be that the UCAV is something the Navy is focusing more on in lieu of the Mariner. Not exactly the same type of aircraft, but the Mariner cannot land on a carrier.

For long endurance, loiter missions it looks like the Navy is going to use the Global Hawk. For everything else they will use the UCAV (when it eventually comes on line) and the Fire Scout.

Maybe it is a Northrop Grumman conspiracy since Lokheed Martin has taken over Air Force procurement.


Posted by: DC2 Jennings at February 8, 2008 10:06 AM

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