The Scan Eagle as a Combat Asset: Shaping a New Business Model


The Scan Eagle has been used by U.S. and allied forces aboard ships as well as in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is a very flexible asset, and requires a small crew to operate and can focus on a targeted area of interest. 

Its recovery system makes it ideal for maritime use as well.

According to Boeing, the defense company which now owns the Scan Eagle:

ScanEagle is a low-cost, long-endurance, autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developed and built by Boeing and The Insitu Group. The UAV is based on Insitu’s SeaScan miniature robotic aircraft and draws on Boeing’s systems integration, communications and payload technologies. It carries either an electro-optical or an infrared camera. Both are inertially stabilized. The gimbaled camera allows the operator to easily track both stationary and moving targets. ScanEagle vehicles can operate individually or in groups to loiter over trouble spots.

The four-foot-long ScanEagle system can provide more than 15 consecutive hours of “on-station” coverage and can operate in harsh weather environments, including high winds and heavy rains — conditions that can keep other UAVs on the ground. The ScanEagle’s internal avionics bay allows seamless integration of new payloads and sensors and ensures the vehicle will be able to incorporate the latest technology as it becomes available.

The ScanEagle is launched autonomously by a pneumatic wedge catapult launcher and flies preprogrammed or operator-initiated missions. A “skyhook” system is used for retrieval, with the UAV catching a rope hanging from a 50-foot-high pole. The patented system allows ScanEagle to be runway independent and operate from forward fields, mobile vehicles or small ships.

An article in Defense Industry Daily underscored that the Scan Eagle is both an evolving and very successful platform used by the fleet and for land based operations as well.

ScanEagle has been demonstrated or used from a wide variety of ship classes and types, and the family includes a number of specialty variants from sniper locator, to bio-warfare agent detection (BCAS).

A NightEagle conversion kit adds a different front end with thermal imaging sensors, and allows field conversion of ScanEagle aircraft in 2-3 hours.

More drastic modifications are found in the ScanEagle Compressed Carriage (SECC), whose smaller fold-out wings allow it to be launched from an aircraft pylon, or a submarine.

That combination of versatility, long endurance, and small size appears to be succeeding in the global defense marketplace, without really impairing the market for tactical UAVs.

Boeing has had field representatives in theater for a few years now to support and operate the ScanEagle UAV from ships and ashore, receiving high battlefield praise and a fairly regular stream of contracts from the USA and Australia. Canada and Malaysia have signed on for battlefield surveillance services, the Dutch are using ScanEagle as an interim UAV, Poland and Singapore have purchased the platform, Japan is testing it, and a US Navy presentation suggests that the Colombian, Iraqi, and Tunisian navies are using it. Other customers wait in the wings, with reported interest from Kuwait, and Pakistan, among others. 

Carlos Munoz, then with AOL Defense, reported in 2012 that several allies were in play for the program as well.

Navy leaders are considering foreign military sales of the Scan Eagle to Kuwait, Pakistan and the Netherlands, according to a presentation by Marine Corps Col. James Rector, head of the small tactical unmanned aerial systems division at Naval Air Systems Command. Aside from the U.S. Navy, the Scan Eagle is being flown by naval forces in Colombia, Tunisia, Poland and Iraq, according to PowerPoint slides from Rector’s speech at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s annual program review in Washington yesterday.

In an interview, which we conducted with the Deputy Commander of the 2nd ESG, COL., Brad Weisz highlighted the importance of the Scan Eagle for amphibious fleet defense efforts.

ISR assets such as Scan Eagle and STUAS are becoming increasingly necessary for ARG/MEU operations; especially given the current CP and A2/AD threat that exists in the littoral environment.

The then head of 2nd MAW, General “Dog” Davis, underscored that combing UAVs with Harriers at FOB Dwyer created a powerful combat capability:

From the time they left station and the time they were back overhead in about 30, 35 minutes.  That kind of performance and capability is unique for a TACAIR platform.  By investing up front in FOB Dwyer, we could take 10 STOVL attack aircraft and make 10 airplanes perform like 40 anywhere else.

FOB Dwyer was more than just a Harrier strip.  It was a combat strip.  We based some of our VMUs down there flying both Scan Eagle and Shadow UAVs.  .  We initially sized the length of Dwyer based on what it took us to get a fully loaded C130 with a full bag of gas and full logistics load in there.  And on a hot day, and at the filed elevations we are dealing with in that part of Afghanistan that comes out to about a 4,000 foot strip. The template for the Marine Corps in the future should allow us to operate at full capability wherever we can put 4,000 foot strip.

Associated with the Scan Eagle is a business model which highlights a significant contractor role in supporting the weapon system during operations.

One can gain a sense of the business model from this sentence contained in a UMSC story published in 2010:

Seven Marines and 14 civilian contractors work around the clock keeping eyes in the sky known as the X-200 ScanEagle, which provides overwatch for ground forces.

And in the case of the UK, a contract has been put in place whereby the contractor will initiate use of the combat system

According to Craig Hoyle of Flight International:

The UK Royal Navy expects to conduct its first contractor-supported operations with the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle unmanned air system from late this year, although its timetable for the type’s introduction has been affected by a lack of manpower.

Operations with the ScanEagle will occur under a contractor-owned and operated deal awarded to Boeing Defence UK earlier in June 2013 worth £30 million ($47 million). This will see the equipment launched from and recovered aboard some RN and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels.

Finally, we have publiashed a four part video series, which shows the Scan Eagle from preparation to flight, to flight, and return as well as operators comments about the use of the Scan Eagle in Afghanistan.