For U.S. Air Force, the Cost of Operating Unmanned Aircraft Becoming ‘Unsustainable’
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The fastest-growing occupation in the U.S. Air Force — warzone surveillance — soon may be reaching its peak as the Defense Department looks for ways to cut costs.
The deployment of Air Force remotely piloted spy aircraft across Iraq and Afghanistan grew rapidly over the past eight years, at the same time that the Army also expanded its fleet of unmanned surveillance drones. In the face of budget cuts in the coming years, the Pentagon is suspecting that there might be too many ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) programs across the Defense Department.
“In a declining budget environment, we are going to have to be careful” about duplicating investments or spending funds on ISR programs that may not be needed, said Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.
In last year’s Air Force budget, there were at least 13 different projects associated with the expansion or improvement of ISR systems, Donley told reporters Sept. 19 at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space annual symposium.
It’s not just the cost of the ISR hardware that Pentagon budget officials worry about. Paying for the labor — both military personnel and contractors — associated with unmanned aircraft operations has become “unsustainable,” Donley said.
The Air Force operates 50 “combat air patrols” over warzones today. These include 48 MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper orbits and two orbits of the high-altitude RQ-4 Global Hawk. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates directed the Air Force to beef up its presence to 65 combat air patrols by fiscal year 2013.
Industry analysts have estimated the Pentagon will procure nearly $50 billion worth of remotely piloted aircraft by 2020.
Donley said the forecast is being revisited because there may be more than enough assets in the services’ inventories than is actually needed.
“Our view is that the Department of Defense needs to look at the totality of the ISR capabilities,” he said. “We need to make some choices about how we further develop our ISR capabilities, concepts of operations, infrastructure,” he said. “Manpower requirements are growing at rates that are not sustainable.”
Earlier this year,Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarellialso suggested that there might be too much overlap among the services’ ISR programs and that these projects may be ripe for cutbacks. Every branch of the U.S. military now operates vast ISR fleets, including large numbers of spy drones of all shapes and sizes, and manned aircraft —fixed- and rotary-wing — equipped with loads of sensors. Redundancies are justified in some cases, but there are areas where inefficiencies should be targeted, Chiarelli said. Both the Army and the Air Force, for example, operate similar fixed-wing unmanned air vehicles for ISR missions. Over the past several years, the Army has bulked up its UAV fleet, even as Air Force officials questioned the need to have duplicate fleets. The Army made a convincing case to Defense Secretary Robert Gates that it could not solely depend on Air Force ISR support and that brigade commanders required their own UAV squadrons.
With leaner times approaching and U.S. forces in Afghanistan drawing down, the Pentagon may no longer afford or need so much ISR support, he said.
The U.S. military also might be able to take advantage of new advances in UAV technology that are reducing the manpower demands, industry experts said.
New generations of UAVs are increasingly more “autonomous,” so operators can spend less time driving and minding the robots. A single operator can instruct the UAV to remain in a specific airspace or track an individual vehicle, and a single control station can be used to operate three aircraft at once.
Industry expertshave attributed the rising cost of UAV operations to the lack of technological standards for drone communications and data sharing. As the Pentagon rushed over the past eight years to deploy drones, most robotic vehicles were purchased with proprietary data systems and ground-control stations that are not compatible across the fleet. “That has pooled a huge manpower and logistics trail, which is unsustainable in the budget,” said Mark Bigham, vice president of business development for Intelligence and Information Systems' Defense and Civil Mission Solutions at Raytheon. “We’re going to have to find a way… to do more with no more, and in fact, to do more with less,” Bigham said in an August interview. “We believe that that is driving us toward a radical shift in the way we buy and acquire capabilities in the UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] market.”
The trend is toward open architecture in control systems so that ground stations can operate multiple types of aircraft.