Buying an off-the-shelf system and partnering with its manufacturer to deliver the capability ought to bring maximum benefits in terms of reduced cost and swifter entry into service. But, as Britain’s Royal Navy is finding as it works to field the Scan Eagle UAV, even the most apparently straightforward procurements can raise complicated issues that require more time and investment to resolve than may originally have been anticipated.

Though a small number of Navy officers have served as part of the RAF-led 39 Sqn, which flies the UK’s MQ-9 Reaper fleet from Creech AFB, Nev, and RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire, the service lacks a sizeable cadre of experienced UAV operators. So the decision to acquire an undisclosed number of Scan Eagle systems was made, in part, because of the Insitu platform’s proven track record, and because the manufacturer’s experience could be brought in to the Navy via a COCO (contractor-owned, contractor-operated) arrangement.

“Scan Eagle has been fielded now for many years, and is closing in on 40,000 operational hours in the maritime,” Lt Cdr Pete Whitehead, an information superiority specialist in Naval Command, told the UAS 2013 conference here today. “We’re looking to field the system within six to nine months of being on contract, so [we asked], ‘What’s the quickest way of getting this in while minimizing the training burden?’ The easy solution is to go contractor-owned, contractor-operated.”

Under this model, Insitu takes much of the risk -- “If they put one in the sea, we don’t care: we wouldn’t have to pay for it, they would have to replace it,” says Whitehead -- and the navy reduces its training burden by paying for contractors to operate the air system. But that is where things start to get tricky.

“The man who’s going to sign off on flying this capability is one of the admirals,” says Whitehead. “Well, actually, two admirals. We’re going to have to assure them. So while we de-risk ourselves in terms of the platform, [we have] to assure ourselves that we’re going to operate in a safe manner.”

After first thinking contractors would deliver a simple product, officials soon ran up against regulations that required additional rules for operations, he says.

“We would have to put some form of go-between betwixt contractor and customer -- and somebody who has some knowledge -- to assure our aviation duty-holders that what they’re doing is right.”

To solve the problem, some navy personnel will have to be trained in operating the system, but not nearly as many as would have been required had the system been procured to be operated solely by the customer.

“We want one aviator, who knows how to operate the system, who is going to be, to all intents and purposes, the safety link in the chain,” Whitehead explains. “The contractors will still be responsible for maintenance, piloting the system, and operating at our request. But where does that boundary lie? This is another issue we’re still wrestling with.”

The uncertainties arise because of the novel nature of operating UAS from on board a ship. Regulations have not yet been drafted to address the specifics, but some ground rules must obviously be adhered to -- and these often challenge the parts of the COCO model that provide the most attractive returns.

“There are some easy questions to answer,” says Whitehead. “[We say to the contractor] ‘You just provide me with a picture: I don’t want you to tell me what it is.’ That is not in their remit. Lest anyone was worried that a contractor was making a tactical decision, it will not happen -- we just simply can’t do that. Whoever’s looking at the picture will be trained, and will be military.

“The other aspect that that then highlighted was, who are these operators, and where does security come into it?” he continues. “Unfortunately, most of the operators out there for this particular system are not British nationals. The ideal solution would be to have the guy who’s controlling the system sitting next to the Warfare Officer in the Ops Room -- but we can’t do that. That’s now going to bring into the game some issues with talking to each other, and how to ensure that we’ve got the best communications.”

Yet, even with the naval staffing requirement kept to a minimum, personnel availability remains an issue.

“The other problem is manpower,” Whitehead adds. “We simply can’t find the people at the moment. We’ve had to overcome some hurdles to get the three people per unit that we, as the Royal Navy, need to supply. If we’d added on another eight per trip for the operator-maintainters, and then the training overhead for those guys as well which would have been about 20 weeks, we would have really come up against the stops for a six-month timeframe.”