Fine Print

Military services should consider common course in chase for updated unmanned aircraft

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, shown last week with Adm. Mike Mullen, has been a major booster of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, shown last week with Adm. Mike Mullen, has been a major booster of unmanned aerial vehicles. (Alex Brandon)
Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In the midst of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's Pentagon budget presentation last week, he veered off reductions and listed what "high-priority military capabilities" each of the military services would fund with the savings they had squeezed out from trimming excessive overhead and unneeded programs.

Like the well-worn image of undisciplined young children playing soccer who all abandon their assigned positions to chase the ball, the Air Force, Army and Navy will spend a portion of their savings on the newest popular weapon of choice, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

That should not be surprising since Gates has been a major booster of the systems, which have proved so helpful in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He disclosed that the Air Force would "buy more of the most advanced Reaper UAV." It flies twice as fast as the Predator while being capable of delivering laser-guided missiles and bombs. The Air Force, Gates added, also will invest in a new, long-range, nuclear-capable, penetrating bomber that "will have the option of being remotely piloted."

"Going forward," he said, "advanced unmanned strike and reconnaissance capabilities must become an integrated part of the Air Force's regular institutional force structure."

As for the Army, Gates said part of its savings will be used to "accelerate procurement of the service's most advanced Grey Eagle UAVs [the Army's upgraded version of the Predator] and begin development of a new vertical unmanned air system [a helicopter] to support the Army in the future."

Then there is the Navy. Though most of its savings will go elsewhere, some of it will be used to "develop a new generation of seaborne unmanned strike and surveillance aircraft," according to Gates.

Even in this new era of tighter budgets, the Defense Department fixation on UAVs has played to the worst of what still remains of interservice rivalries.

The Government Accountability Office, the Defense Department's own inspector general and, more recently, Congress have each tried to rein in the enthusiasm.

In July 2009, the GAO called attention to 10 UAV programs where its investigators found "cost increases [totaling $3 billion], schedule delays, performance shortfalls or some combination of these problems." More important, the GAO found that while Gates's office "encouraged more commonality between these [Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force] programs . . . most of the programs assessed continued to pursue service-unique requirements."

Since that report, Congress and senior Defense Department officials have continued to push for commonality. Nevertheless, the GAO in March found that along with development of more advanced UAVs, the military services "do not appear to focus on increasing collaboration or commonality among unmanned aircraft programs."

That was not true in all programs. The GAO noted that the Marine Corps determined it could work with the Army's Shadow system, its UAV. As a result, the Marines were able "to realize savings or cost avoidance," according to the GAO.

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