Demand for unmanned systems meeting new fiscal reality

Officials are asking suppliers to reduce the cost burden on the military.

The military's demand for unmanned systems-air, ground and maritime-is soaring, but so is the cost of the increasingly sophisticated drones.

Those factors, and the prospect of tightening defense budgets, is leading a long line of officials involved in unmanned programs to urge their industry suppliers to help them reduce the cost to buy and operate them.

The recommendations for lowering the cost of the drones, presented at a three-day conference that ended Thursday, included greater commonality of platforms and control systems, more versatility and modularity and increased automation and autonomy that would help reduce the need for expensive military operators.

The growth of unmanned systems was highlighted by Air Force Col. James Gear, who said the Air Force's use of remotely piloted aircraft-his service's preferred term for unmanned air systems-had soared 1,200 percent since 2004. That enabled an increase in daily reconnaissance missions over Iraq and Afghanistan from seven to 50, in response to orders from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The three other services, and the air and maritime division of the Customs and Border Protection agency, also cited growing use of drones.

But the concern over the mounting costs was signaled by Zachary Lemnios, the Defense Department's chief technologist, who told the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International forum that his four imperatives included "driving down" the time, cost, and risk of acquiring the drones.

Many of the uniformed and civilian defense officials at the forum cited the growing cost of the drones and the likelihood of leveling or declining defense budgets among their major concerns.

Scott Fish, the Army's chief scientist, said "because money is tight," they had to stress "cost-benefit trades" when planning new unmanned system. "Maybe some of the things we've been driving toward are not really what we need."

Several of the officers who spoke said the cost of drones hurt combat effectiveness.

Army Lt. Col. James Cutting said there was "an insatiable demand" for intelligence-collecting UAS. But "when you have multi-million-dollar sensors on multi-million-dollar platforms, you can't buy one for everyone."

Officials from all the services complained that virtually every new unmanned systems program had unique internal guidance and processing systems, which require unique control stations. They called on the industry to develop systems with enough commonality that one control station can manage multiple platforms, and modular vehicles with "open architecture" computer programs that would facilitate different sensor and communications payloads and permit inexpensive updates.

Because the increasing numbers and capabilities of the intelligence-gathering UAS are producing more information than human operators can handle, the officials also asked for vehicles that could analyze the data they gather and send only vital information.

And with the high cost of trained service members, they wanted a single operator to be able to control multiple vehicles.

One industry representative complained that the services were asking them to produce higher quality systems at a lower cost and in smaller numbers, which would hurt profits.

But Glenn Rizzi, the senior adviser on UAS for the Army's training command, said if industry made the drones cheaper, "that way you could sell us more."

The services are acting on their own to lower the cost of their unmanned systems, by buying the most popular air and ground drones through joint programs and even sharing them in the combat zone.

And Col. Gear said the Air Force is training designated RPA pilots through a shorter, less expensive program, instead of using pilots trained through the years-long and costly traditional system.