The Navy wants more Blackjack drones, and the House of Representatives wants to make sure that they get the best version feasible. Focusing on the RQ-21 Blackjack, Boeing looks to command a sizable share of the attributable drone space, a category of vehicle that is only becoming more relevant as the century progresses. With the July 2019 publication of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, it seems the main obstacle for the Blackjack is hitting requirements exactly, without going over.
The contract for up to 63 “RQ-21A attrition air vehicles” was awarded to Insitu June 28, worth a total of $390 million. The margin comes with a tidy profit for the Boeing subsidiary, and it uses the descriptor “attrition air vehicle” for the drone, which is a fascinating way to frame flying machines that, on their own, cost over $2 million to make. It’s a fraction of the cost of a crewed and peopled aircraft, and matches the new reality where drones are occasionally jammed or destroyed while operating in war or war-adjacent missions.
The Navy has for years been increasing its inventory of Blackjack drones. The drones have seen far more use than expected when operating over Syria and Iraq, and the Marine Corps is looking at both night vision and VTOL capability for the system.
Before the drone advances too far on any specific path, Congress wants to make sure it’s using the right engine for the job.
“The capability differences between the v2 and v3 engine are significant and delay in the v3 engine remains a limiting factor for more expansive deployment of the RQ–21 Blackjack,” notes the report from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “The Committee is additionally concerned about divergent requirements for capability for the RQ–21 which may be detracting from development of the next generation engine.”
The report concludes its assessment of the RQ-21 by requiring a timeline for the “development, integration and deployment of the v3 engine,” noting limiting factors and suggesting mitigation. Once the more-capable engine is built into the machine, then Congress is fine with the Navy exploring other options for how to use the Blackjack.
Until that new engine works, though, perhaps it’s best to not gamble on the drone. After all, when it comes to Blackjack, the House always wins.