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

Tuesday, January 11, 2011; A19

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.

While the Air Force Global Hawk (a high-altitude, long-endurance reconnaissance UAV) and the Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) programs identified commonalities in their airframes, the two services "established different payload, subsystem and ground station requirements," the GAO said.

When the Army determined that it wanted a replacement for one of its aging UAV systems, it pursued development of the Sky Warrior, despite apparent duplication with the Air Force's already operating Predator. In the end, the Army's development contract went to the same contractor working for the Air Force on Predator and its replacement, the Reaper. Despite direction in 2007 to combine the programs from the then-deputy secretary of defense, "the Army and Air Force maintained separate programs [on such things as imagery sensors and signals intercept payloads] and at the time of our review [in 2010] had achieved little commonality," the GAO reported.

Last month, the Defense Department inspector general sharply criticized the Navy's $19 billion, seven-year BAMS program. The IG noted that contract officers during the first three years did not review contractor bills totaling $329 million, nor was there a property-sharing agreement covering $150 million worth of special tools and testing equipment used for the Air Force Global Hawk and BAMS. And finally, the IG noted that Defense auditors found that sampling travel vouchers submitted by Northrop Grumman, the BAMS contractor, included $206,000 in unallowable travel vouchers for a golf outing and air shows in Washington, Paris and Singapore.

Congress got into the picture, putting a provision in the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill that calls for a study "by an independent, non-profit organization" on what kind of balance there should be "between manned and remotely piloted aircraft of the Armed Forces." President Obama signed it into law last week.

The study is also to look at the ability of each service to defend its UAVs against enemy attacks, including from opponents' unmanned aircraft.

Much of the enthusiasm for use of drones arises from their success in the totally controlled airspace over Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are neither enemy fighter planes nor antiaircraft batteries on the ground.

UAVs represent a new element in fighting, but they are far from the end of innovation. And before the military services go off in their own costly directions, they should heed the calls for finding some common approaches.

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