A Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout in Afghanistan in 2011 (U.S. Navy Photo)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.–The U.S. Marine Corps wants an initial operational capability for the Marine Air-Ground Task Force Unmanned Aerial System Experimental (MUX) vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) drone by 2025-26, but getting there will require the service to prioritize what capabilities it wants in the drone, Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Steven Rudder told the annual Sea-Air-Space symposium here this week.

“There’s not a MUX now. When you’re hungry, it becomes something industry says can be X, Y, and Z,” he said. “We will begin to prioritize what we want. We’re beginning to walk down that.”

The ability to stow aboard and come off ships, as well as persistent time on station that other Group 4 and 5 Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) have, like the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, will be critical. The Marine Corps wants to create a network of early warning and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance MUX drones for the protection of maritime forces.

A VTOL RQ-21 Blackjack drone may be possible, Rudder said. The Blackjack, built by Boeing‘s [BA] Insitu, is a single-engine monoplane designed as a supplement to the Boeing Scan Eagle. The Marine Corps has used the Blackjack for forward reconnaissance in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thus far, the Marine Corps has said that it is searching for a high-altitude long-endurance MUX drone that can launch from a ship, perform reconnaissance and relay communication to deployed ground forces for about $20 million per copy.

Rear Adm. Brian Corey, program manager of Program Executive Office for Unmanned and Weapons, said on May 6 that the Navy is to award a series of up to eight prize challenge awards for MUX–an “exciting approach to get the best out of our industry partners.”

Rather than using a traditional way to develop new capabilities with a Request for Proposals, the planned prize challenge awards break down the problem into “discrete chunks” that will allow the Navy to get a better idea of what industry can do and give industry a better idea of what the Navy/Marine Corps needs. Most importantly, such a challenge “spurs innovation of industry,” Corey said.

While demonstrations are sometimes part of a prize competition, each MUX prize challenge award will focus on a particular part of the capability the Navy needs.

Rather than awarding contractors funding up front and evaluating their performance later, the winning contractors in this case will only receive the funding after they produce something, Corey said.

“We may be using OTA [Other Transactional] authorities,” he said. “Part of the approach is it’s a learning approach by nature, it’s an interactive approach by nature, but industry – how they respond will change how we move through the prize challenges. So this first prize challenge is to get people going. It will be a segment of the problem that we have to solve to go forward and as we move forward the problem will get bigger, the prizes will get bigger and hopefully we’ll get closer to what the Marine Corps ultimately needs to meet their fleet requirement.”

After a MUX acquisition decision planned for fiscal 2020, the service had said that it wanted a land-based early operational capability within five years and a land-based initial operational capability two years later, with a sea-based initial operating capability to follow.

Likely MUX competitors include Bell‘s [TXT] V-247 tiltrotor UAS, a Lockheed Martin [LMT]/Piasecki Aircraft Corp./Sierra Nevada Corp. team developing the Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES), which is to feature twin tilting wing-mounted duct fans; Boeing [BA], which is developing a tail-sitting unmanned flying wing, the MUX-1; and Northrop Grumman [NOC], which is also developing a tail-sitting flying wing called the tactically exploited reconnaissance node, or Tern.