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GAO: Lack Of Planning Hampers UAV Acquisition

By | April 10, 2006

      The lack of a "viable strategic plan" at the Pentagon for developing and acquiring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has resulted in a wide range of problems in this fast-growing part of the armed services’ fleets, according to officials from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
      These problems include cost overruns, delivery delays, duplication of effort, and technological issues, according to the GAO’s Sharon Pickup, director of defense capabilities and management, and Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management.
      They made these points in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) tactical air and land forces subcommittee.
      Nobody was arguing about the value of UAVs, which are becoming increasingly important parts of the U.S. defense equation.
      "As of February 2006, the Department of Defense (DOD) had more than 3,000 unmanned aircraft, about 2,000 of which are supporting ongoing operations in Iraq," according to a GAO report presented by Pickup and Sullivan.
      The recently completed Quadrennial Defense Review of long-term DOD needs "validates the importance of unmanned systems and establishes plans to significantly expand investment in unmanned systems and their use in military operations over the next several years," the GAO report said.
      The bad news is that "DOD lacks a viable strategic plan" to guide its investment decisions regarding UAVs, Pickup told House subcommittee members. The lack of such a plan, she said, is hampering effective deployment of UAVs, which also are known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
      Among the issues that have arisen, Pickup said, have been the matter of interoperability of UAVs with ground forces; the availability of bandwidth for communications; and and the increasingly complicated problem of having manned and unmanned aerial vehicles share airspace.
      GAO investigators flagged a number of the problems arising from DOD’s lack of strategic planning by comparing the progress of the Global Hawk and the Predator UAV programs.
      Northrop Grumman Corp. is the prime contractor for the Global Hawk; General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. produces the Predator.
      These two UAV programs had "similar beginnings," but diverged significantly due to different acquisition strategies, Sullivan told subcommittee members. In the course of its development, Global Hawk switched to a "high-risk acquisition strategy" that led to cost and schedule problems, the postponing or dropping of some required capabilities, and performance issues, Sullivan said.
      In the process, the Global Hawk program has gone through four rounds of restructuring, according to the GAO report.
      The Predator program, by contrast, has followed a more evolutionary acquisition strategy that is consistent with DOD acquisition guidance, with the result that "its cost growth and schedule delays have been relatively minor," Sullivan said.
      A lesson to draw from this experience, he said, is that there is wisdom in implementing an incremental acquisition strategy "that emphasizes `fly before you buy’ as a tenet." Predator illustrates the importance of keeping programs on a tight focus and closely tied to a solid business case, Sullivan said.
      Responding to the study in contrasts between the Global Hawk and the Predator, Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Tex.) asked the GAO officials, "What is going on?"
      Sullivan’s response to that question served to illustrate what can happen if a field of acquisitions lacks strategic planning.
      The Global Hawk, he said, started out as an amalgamation of several "fairly mature technologies," and the first protoype aircraft had to meet only "very reasonable requirements." But about a year into the acquisition phase of the program, "`requirements creep’ set in," Sullivan said, referring to the idea of gradually piling on requirements beyond those originally intended. The "requirements guys" within the Pentagon started demanding that the Global Hawk carry new radars and other not-yet-proven technologies, Sullivan said.
      Then the Air Force, in anticipation of the discontinuance of the U-2 spy plane, began regarding the Global Hawk as a future "unmanned U-2," Sullivan said. "They weren’t forced" to do so, he noted. But once the Air Force started in this direction, "it gave them momentum to add a lot of requirements" to the Global Hawk.
      And that, Sullivan said, is why the Global Hawk program has had four restructurings to date.
      Sullivan also raised the matter of UAV program duplication, a theme upon which Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Penn.) touched in his opening statement as chairman of the subcommittee.
      "I am not sure I understand why the Army needs two sets of UAVs: one for the [Future Combat System] brigade combat teams and another set for the other 80 or so percent of the Army’s future force," Weldon said.
      "There are so many unmanned aerial vehicles in various development programs in each of the services and various agencies within the services, that I am confident in saying that all of us here could not collectively name them all," Weldon said to an audience that included representatives from all of the armed services. "They may be terrific programs," Weldon continued, "but I don’t think that this is the way we should go about our business."

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