WASHINGTON — The Trump Administration’s more relaxed stance on drone sales is broadening the market for Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, which recently received permission to market its potentially-armed, jet-powered “loyal wingman” Mako to certain partner nations in Europe and the Asia-Pacific.
That means that, for the first time, the San Diego-based defense manufacturer will be able to sell one of its unmanned aerial systems abroad — and its President and CEO Eric DeMarco said the first UAS deal could happen as early as this year.
“We’ve obviously been pushing this, but this came so suddenly and quickly. It’s clear things are changing quickly,” he told Defense News in a April 26 interview. “We see real opportunity very soon.”
President Donald Trump’s much-anticipated drone export law changes arrived on April 21, about a month after the State Department approved the Mako for exports.
“The decision went public in March, prior to the announcement of the drone export policy change, but it’s easy to imagine that the decision [to permit Mako exports] was made given the upcoming policy change,” said Michael Horowitz, a former Pentagon official and UAS expert with the University of Pennsylvania.
Trump’s new export rules pave the way for manufacturers to sell UAS through the direct commercial sales process. DeMarco is excited by that prospect for Mako, saying it would mean higher profit margins on international transactions than foreign military sales, an often slow government-to-government process.
“I could see by the end of this calendar year some orders,” DeMarco said. “Because we got [the changes] in April. Many of the [potential] customers are the exact customers or tangentially the same customers that are buying our target drones. So we know the customer. We know their weapons systems. We know lots of important information relative to the marketing base.”
Trump’s drone export policy push comes after months of rumors about the proposed reforms, and industry and experts still have questions about the significance of the changes.
The unclassified text of the new policy appeared to do little to scale back the “strong presumption of denial” that makes it difficult for companies to sell category-1 UAS capable of carrying 500-kilogram payloads for more than 300 kilometers, a description that pertains to most armed drones.
But it’s uncertain what that policy, or any new interpretation of it, means specifically for Mako sales.
A fact sheet for Mako lists a 350-pound internal payload, 500-pound external payload, and a 100-pound payload capacity for each wing-tip.
An aircraft must be capable of carrying 500 kilograms (or about 1102 pounds) to be designated a category-1 UAS , so the Mako may already fit into a category that will make it easier to export than systems like the MQ-9 Reaper, Horowitz said.
Kratos has experience selling its target drones internationally to countries such as the United Kingdom, Taiwan, South Korea and Sweden, DeMarco said. Several countries had already approached Kratos about Mako and other tactical drones, but execs have had to rebuff those conversations until now due to prior export restrictions.
Mako was designed as a ‘loyal wingman’ that could fly along manned fighters like the F-35, but it could also be deployed alone or as part of a group of drones.
It flies at subsonic speeds of up to .91 Mach speeds and has a maximum range of 1,400 nautical miles. The aircraft can carry a variety of payloads, including weapons, electronic warfare pods and defensive countermeasures like chaff and flares.
DeMarco said the Asia-Pacific is a “perfect” customer base for the Mako, as the rail-launched aircraft can be operated over land or at sea. And the aircraft is relatively cheap — costing about $1 million for the air vehicle without any payloads, though the price would drop if part of a larger order, he said.
Kratos is under contract with Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx, to test Mako and expects a follow-on contract for continued demonstrations in short order.
Another one of Kratos’ drones also had been approved for international marketing in April, but DeMarco said he could not disclose the model, or even whether the product was from the company’s line of target or tactical drones.
The company is developing other tactical drones, including a loyal wingman type UAS called the Valkyrie for Air Force Research Laboratory’s Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology program, as well as the swarming air vehicles for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Gremlins program, which Kratos is making with prime contractor Dynetics.
All of those efforts are still in their early stages, but DeMarco is “highly confident” that the Pentagon is serious about transitioning them to programs of record.
The company has stood up a facility in Oklahoma for tactical drone production and expects the first aircraft to roll off the line in 2019 — although DeMarco could not say which air vehicle that is or what potential customer will receive it.
“We are negotiating a strategic partnership with another small mid-[capacity] defense company that is also going to help us build aerostructures, because we have some other things that we can’t talk too much about, that could hit very, very quickly,” he said. “So they’re going to be helping us. They’re set up and ready to go.”
“Hypothetically, in the second half of this year, if we receive an order for 500 drones that we’ve got to deliver in the next two years, we need their help,” he added. “Oklahoma won’t be ready. … But there are some interesting things going on.”
In anticipation for potential U.S. or international sales that could be on the horizon, Kratos is already engaged in site assessments for two other potential locations, although DeMarco stressed that Oklahoma will be the primary production facility for tactical drones.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.