Is US unmanned aircraft biz too booming for its own good?

Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk find fast success, but at what cost?

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Has the highly successful but disparate unmanned aircraft strategy deployed by the military outstripped the Department of Defense's ability to handle its growth? 

The Air Force, Army and Navy have requested approximately $6.1 billion in fiscal year 2010 for new systems and expanded capabilities. The pentagon's fiscal year 2010 budget request wants to increase the Air Force's Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft programs to 50 combat air patrols by fiscal year 2011-an increase of nearly 300% since fiscal year 2007. In 2000, DOD had fewer than 50 unmanned aircraft in its inventory; as of October 2009, this number had grown to more than 6,800.

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The program's success however is causing some big cracks in the system.  According to a report issued this week by congressional watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office.  The military is facing a number of challenges, including training, accessing national air space and improving aircraft communications systems it must overcome if unmanned aircraft are to take their place as a central piece of the military's future, the GAO stated. 

First, the report notes that as more unmanned aircraft hit the skies, the pentagon will require access to more airspace for training; for example, the DoD estimated that based on planned unmanned aircraft inventories in fiscal year 2013, the military services will require more than 1 million flight hours to train personnel within the United States, the GAO stated.   

Because unmanned aircraft don't meet several federal requirements for routine access to the national airspace system, most types of the aircraft may not perform routine flight activities, such as taking off and landing outside DoD-managed airspace. The main problems is that most unmanned aircraft don't suitable alternative technology on board the aircraft to detect, sense, and avoid collision with other aircraft, the GAO stated.

Pilot supply is also major issue.  The Air Force, the GAO states, has identified limitations in the approaches it has used to supply pilots to support the expanded Predator and Reaper programs. Since the beginning of these programs, the Air Force has temporarily reassigned experienced pilots to operate unmanned aircraft, and more recently, it began assigning pilots to operate unmanned aircraft immediately after they completed undergraduate pilot training. Air Force officials stated that this initiative is intended to provide an additional 100 pilots per year on a temporary basis to support the expanding unmanned programs. Officials told the GAO that it would be difficult to continue these practices in the long term without affecting the readiness of other Air Force weapon systems, since the pilots who are performing unmanned operations on temporary assignments are also needed to operate other manned aircraft and perform other duties. 

A few of the other issues from the GAO report included: 

  • The Air Force has neither determined the total number of facilities required to support its rapidly expanding Predator and Reaper programs nor finalized the criteria it will use to renovate existing facilities because decisions regarding the size of squadrons and the locations where these squadrons will be based had not been finalized.  
  • The Army has begun to field the unmanned aircraft and has determined that the Army installations where the system will be stationed require facilities uniquely configured to support training and operations. These facilities include a runway, a maintenance hangar, and a unit operations facility. However, the Army has not fully determined where it will base each of these systems and it has not completed assessments at each location to evaluate existing facilities that could potentially be used to meet the requirements and to determine the number of new facilities that the Army needs to construct. 
  • The operation of the many unmanned aircraft relies on additional equipment, networks and satellites some of which are located outside of the country where the unmanned operations occur. Because of the satellite relay's critical importance in supporting ongoing contingency operations, the Air Force is taking steps to establish a redundant satellite relay site to support unmanned missions in the event of disruptions at the current location. For example, officials told the GAO that the Air Force is acquiring new communications equipment with increased capacity for the current site, which will allow equipment currently in use to be available for other locations. In addition, the Air Force is seeking funds to conduct surveys to identify potential locations to establish a redundant satellite relay site. However, officials stated that these efforts are not scheduled to be completed until fiscal year 2012, at the earliest, leaving the system open to being disrupted. 
  • Air Force unmanned personnel and Army ground units have limited opportunities to train together in a joint environment, and they have not maximized the use of available assets during training. Current unmanned simulators also have limited capabilities to enhance training, the GAO stated.  The pentagon has started to address training challenges, but it has not developed a strategy to prioritize and synchronize these efforts.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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