Defense Acquisitions:

Matching Resources with Requirements Is Key to the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle Program's Success

GAO-03-598: Published: Jun 30, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2003.

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The Department of Defense (DOD) is developing a new unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) that can suppress enemy air defenses and conduct other air-to-ground attacks, particularly against heavily defended targets. Because it may perform these missions at a relatively low cost, the UCAV could be used to replace some of DOD's aging tactical aircraft fleet. A key to UCAV's success will lie in DOD's ability to match users' needs, or requirements, with the developer's resources (technology and design knowledge, money, and time) when product development begins. Our work shows that doing so can prevent rework and save both time and money. Therefore, we assessed DOD's ability to make this match. GAO conducted its work on the basis of the Comptroller General's authority and addresses the report to the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, House Committee on Armed Services because of its interest and jurisdiction in the program.

The UCAV program's original performance objectives posed manageable challenges to build an affordable, highly survivable, and lethal weapon system. The Air Force, however, added requirements for electronic attack and increased flying range after DOD accelerated the program's product development schedule by 3 years. These changes widened the gap between the customer's requirements and the developer's resources, specifically time, reducing the probability that the program would deliver production aircraft on cost, on schedule, and with anticipated performance capabilities. DOD has recently decided to adopt a new joint service approach to UCAV development that provides more time to close the requirements--resource gap before product development starts. It appears DOD may add new content because it is proposing to build a new prototype that would be a larger air vehicle, capable of flying and carrying out combat missions for longer periods of time. To reduce technical risk, DOD anticipates delaying the start of product development for several years in order to address new requirements. As a gap between resources and requirements widened in 2002, risks projected for the start of product development with UCAV's 15 technologies, processes and system attributes increased significantly. The new joint plan brings the risks back down. This action also allows competition back into the UCAV development effort. DOD will still face challenges in controlling joint, multimission requirements and ensuring that both services continue to provide funds for the program while also funding other large aircraft investments. If these challenges are not met, the gap between requirements and resources could resurface. DOD's role will continue to be instrumental in helping to negotiate requirements, assure resources are in place, and make difficult program trade-offs.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should develop an acquisition approach for the joint UCAV program that enables requirements and resources to be balanced at the start of product development. This approach should provide mechanisms for brokering the demands of multiple missions, for ensuring that the product developer maintains a voice in assessing the resource implications of requirements, and for preserving the integrity of evolutionary acquisition. Reinstating the use of technology readiness levels may be very valuable in facilitating necessary tradeoffs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with the recommendation and stated that it would develop an acquisition approach to balance resources with evolving requirements. DOD stated that they would direct a joint system management office to help define near-term Service requirements for a highly survivable unmanned combat system. Once the initial requirements were identified, the mechanism for matching resources would occur through the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System. In October 2003, a Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program was formed to provide a joint DARPA/Air Force/Navy effort to demonstrate unmanned combat capabilities. Specifically, the J-UCAS program combined the efforts that were preciously known as the DARPA/USAF Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) and the DARPA/USN Naval Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV-N) programs. GAO concluded that the decision to create a joint program could be helpful if the gap between resources and requirements can be closed. During FY05 budget deliberations it was reported that a potential gap between the Air Force's force structure plans and the fiscal resources to pay for those plans was looming, such that the Air Force may have to reconsider future acquisition options to ensure a more financially feasible investment strategy. Until recently, funding for J-UCAS came from funds transferred from the Air Force and Navy to DARPA as the lead agency for J-UCAS. However, in FY05 the Congress slashed Air Force funding for the program by almost half, and in December 2004 OSD shifted J-UCAS money from DARPA to the Air Force in anticipation of moving the program under that service's control. According to OSD the restructuring of the program and reduction in program funding was taken in context of many competing needs, and does not alter the Department's commitment to the program. GAO testified before the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives on March 9, 2005 that the impact of these changes in program direction and content are not yet clear. The J-UCAS program was terminated by OSD in 2006. As of May 2007, there has not been a new joint acquisition program started and it appears that this will not happen.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should formalize the management role performed by his office and the attendant authority to perform that role; ensure that the services are fully involved in the process; and work to develop an efficient approach to transitioning the UCAV from DOD's technology development environment to the services' acquisition environment so the needs of the war fighter can be met more quickly.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation, stating that the Secretary is organizing the management function as he deems suitable. In 2001, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics formed the UAV Planning Task Force to provide oversight for all of the Department's major UAV acquisition programs and to provide guidance, as necessary, to maximize interoperability and commonality. The role of this and other DOD offices was crucial to keeping the Air Force unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) program on track. In October 2003, a Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program was formed to provide a joint DARPA/Air Force/Navy effort to demonstrate unmanned combat capabilities. Specifically, the J-UCAS program combined the efforts that were preciously known as the DARPA/USAF Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV) and the DARPA/USN Naval Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle (UCAV-N) programs. However, during FY05 budget deliberations concerns were raised about the potential for the J-UCAS to become too expensive to employ in high-risk environments. To address this concern it was recommended that an executive committee be established to provide guidance and recommendations to the J-UCAS program office. In December 2004 OSD decided to shift J-UCAS money from DARPA to the Air Force in anticipation of moving the program under that service's control. GAO testified before the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives on March 9, 2005 that the impact of these changes in program direction and content are not yet clear. The J-UCAS program was terminated by OSD in 2006. As of May 2007, there has not been a new joint acquisition program started and it appears that this will not happen.

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