US Marines with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron One prepare to launch a RQ-21 Blackjack UAS, a Group 3 drone, at Yuma, Ariz., on Oct. 13, 2017. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Rhita Daniel)

WASHINGTON — Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is seeking industry feedback for a “Swarm Carrier” uncrewed aircraft system capable of launching from a C-130 and deploying drones of it own, according to a new notice published Wednesday.

AFSOC eventually plans to seek input on drones in sizes between Group 2 and Group 3, Pentagon parlance for small- to mid-size UAS. One drone would be a Group 2 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drone, which could be internally carried and launched by the Group 3 “Swarm Carrier.” The Swarm Carrier itself should be capable of launching as a palletized effect from a C-130. And a separate Group 3 drone would be “signature managed” — denoting stealth qualities that could hide it from detection — and deployed from a Group 5 UAS, the largest drone class, to act as a command node for a swarm and relay data back from a contested or denied environment.

According to the document, a request for information (RFI) will follow for each of the other drone concepts besides the Swarm Carrier. The command wants industry to move relatively quickly: The RFI seeks systems that could be fielded within two-to-three years, which could then be upgraded through a modular open systems architecture approach. 

The market research bolsters a concept in the works by AFSOC known as Adaptive Airborne Enterprise, or A2E, that has motivated tasks like a single crew controlling multiple MQ-9 Reapers. AFSOC officials have also previously discussed plans to outfit platforms like the Reaper, a Group 5 UAS, with the ability to launch several smaller drones. 

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A document included in the market research [PDF] describes the A2E concept as extending the reach of special operators, who could send drones into contested and denied environments with kinetic, non-kinetic, and sensing capabilities. “A2E systems and payloads will operate overtly or covertly as mission dictates, with the ability to provide low-cost, expendable mass and attritable platforms while also providing high-fidelity targeting information and required effects for the Joint Force,” the document says.   

AFSOC is looking to cast “the widest possible net” in its search for viable vendors, including “non-traditional performers and innovators with relevant capabilities and technologies.” Especially in the UAS space, small and mid-size companies have recently beat out big defense primes in contests like the Air Force’s Collaborative Combat Aircraft (CCA) program and a test vehicle project led by the Air Force and Defense Innovation Unit. 

Like with CCA, the RFI says that vendors who lose out in initial bids could get other chances in the future. Responses are due by August 9.