Does the military have too many drones?

The military might be taking on more unmanned aircraft than it can handle.

The military might be taking on more unmanned aircraft than it can handle, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The military's inventory of such aircraft has grown from less than 50 to nearly 7,000 since 2000, and the Defense Department's fiscal 2010 budget request would add more. But, according to GAO, the military's ability to use the aircraft effectively is flagging for several reasons.

First, DOD will need ever-increasing access to U.S. airspace for training missions and exercises. GAO estimates that the combined military services will need more than 1 million hours of flight time for unmanned training missions by fiscal 2013. However, the aircraft don't meet federal requirements for routine access to national airspace, so they are limited to military airspace.

"DOD has not developed a results-oriented strategy to resolve challenges that affect the ability of the Air Force and the Army to train personnel for [unmanned aircraft] operations," the GAO report states. The military does use simulators for some training, but they have "limited capabilities" to really enhance training.

"DOD has commenced initiatives to address training challenges, but it has not developed a results-oriented strategy to prioritize and synchronize these efforts," the GAO report adds. "Absent a strategy, DOD will not have a sound basis for prioritizing resources, and it cannot be assured that the initiatives will address limitations in Air Force and Army training approaches."

Another problem is pilot supply, GAO found.

While the vehicles are unmanned, they're not automated. Experienced pilots fly them from remote locations, and the military might not have enough pilots. The Air Force has been temporarily assigning pilots to the Predator and Reaper unmanned programs, and assigning newly trained pilots to the programs as soon as they complete their undergraduate training.

However, continuing the practice over the long term, especially as the unmanned programs expand, could diminish readiness in other areas, GAO found.

GAO recommended that DOD to conduct comprehenisve planning as part of its decision-making for purchasing additional unmanned vehicles, and to develop a results-oriented strategy for training. DOD concurred or partly concurred with all five of the specific recommendations.