Does the military have too many drones?

Services struggle to use large inventory of unmanned aircraft effectively, GAO says

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.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

Reader Comments

Thu, Nov 17, 2011

From 50 to 7000. The military is just as out of control as the rest of the federal government.

Mon, Apr 12, 2010

A bigger question might be the basic utility of UAS's. They seem to have proliferated into every niche and cranny of military operations and enjoy great "political success", but. . . has anyone really looked at the overall advantages? For example, in a permissive environment (as we currently have in SWA), what is the advantage of a Predator vs a King Air with a flir ball, Ku terminal, and Hellfire launch rails? Is there an economic advantage, an operational capability advantage, or even just an advantage in terms of R&D costs? Compare the communications and C4 requirements/cost of a Predator and an armed/recce manned aircraft and you can start to see what I mean. Go all the way down the list of possible comparisons for each role that we now find UAVs occupying and you will have done what our procurement communities are obliged to do by regulation and common sense, but. . . does your answer agree with theirs? Were all of these UAS's actually procured for the express benefit of the operational forces or were there other reasons? To quote Dashell Hammit, "Follow the money!".

Mon, Apr 5, 2010 Bill Clardy Not home

Looking at the report in a different light, I begin downgrading credibility severely when I probable buzzwords inserted repeatedly. With "results-oriented strategy" appearing so prominently in the article, I can only presume that the report's author(s) were using it with equal largesse -- and probably having a depth of understanding inversely proportional to their overuse of the term. But that's just my "shoot the messenger who babbles" response.

Mon, Apr 5, 2010 LC California

Ex-military here, working on the UAVs. There's plenty of military airspace out there trust me. I'm a pilot and the number of areas just in CA, AZ, UT, and NV alone that are off limits to commercial air is numerous. Also, please check on how many drones other countries have now, including the bad guy countries......if we don't they will, as proven in history. Hearing from the boys on the ground that run these things, theres never enough of these drones due to resources, mechanical issues, logistics in where they are running, and so on. Don't tie their hands....

Mon, Apr 5, 2010 Robert Ressl Arlington Texas

I understand needing a piolot to fly a dron aircraft. However, wouldn't the physical requirements be different (expanded) shouldn't women be considered? Shouldn't people with some physical limitations regarding flying an aircraft in the aircraft be reasonable piolots for drone aircraft. A shortage of piolots seems to be limited because their seems to be a belief that the drone piolots have to be capable of flying in the aircraft when they don't. Is this another form of descrimination?

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