Unmanned Aircraft Systems:

New DOD Programs Can Learn from Past Efforts to Craft Better and Less Risky Acquisition Strategies

GAO-06-447: Published: Mar 15, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 15, 2006.

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Through 2011, the Department of Defense (DOD) plans to spend $20 billion to significantly increase its inventory of unmanned aircraft systems, which are providing new intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike capabilities to U.S. combat forces--including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite their success on the battlefield, DOD's unmanned aircraft programs have experienced cost and schedule overruns and performance shortfalls. Given the sizable planned investment in these systems, GAO was asked to review DOD's three largest unmanned aircraft programs in terms of cost. Specifically, GAO assessed the Global Hawk and Predator programs' acquisition strategies and identified lessons from these two programs that can be applied to the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) program, the next generation of unmanned aircraft.

While the Global Hawk and Predator both began as successful demonstration programs, they adopted different acquisition strategies that have led to different outcomes. With substantial overlap in development, testing, and production, the Global Hawk program has experienced serious cost, schedule, and performance problems. As a result, since the approved start of system development, planned quantities of the Global Hawk have decreased 19 percent, and acquisition unit costs have increased 75 percent. In contrast, the Predator program adopted a more structured acquisition strategy that uses an incremental, or evolutionary, approach to development--an approach more consistent with DOD's revised acquisition policy preferences and commercial best practices. While the Predator program has experienced some problems, the program's cost growth and schedule delays have been relatively minor, and testing of prototypes in operational environments has already begun. Since its inception as a joint program in 2003, the J-UCAS program has experienced funding cuts and leadership changes, and the recent Quadrennial Defense Review has directed another restructuring into a Navy program to develop a carrier-based unmanned combat air system. Regardless of these setbacks and the program's future organization, DOD still has the opportunity to learn from the lessons of the Global Hawk and Predator programs. Until DOD develops the knowledge needed to prepare solid and feasible business cases to support the acquisition of J-UCAS and other advanced unmanned aircraft systems, it will continue to risk cost and schedule overruns and delaying fielding capabilities to the warfighter.

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: To reduce program risk and increase the likelihood of more successful program outcomes by delivering capabilities to the warfighter when needed and within available resources, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Navy and Air Force organizations responsible for the development efforts stemming from the former J-UCAS program to not move into a weapon system acquisition program before developing an evolutionary and knowledge-based acquisition strategy that implements the intent of DOD acquisition policy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since this report was issued, the former J-UCAS program was terminated pursuant to the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. The Navy is proceeding with its own effort, the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. The purpose of the program is to conduct a carrier demonstration of an unmanned combat air system with low observable platforms. DOD has separated the acquisition phase from the technology maturation phase, which should inform a possible Milestone B decision in 2013. This should allow the Navy sufficient time to determine requirements, mature the technologies and design, and ensure adequate resources are available before proceeding with the formal acquisition phase. Our current review of UAS programs (code 120762) found that the Navy is leveraging J-UCAS data to evolve technologies and mitigate risks on UCAS-D. The program is currently on schedule for a 2013 demonstration. The Air Force is pursuing various J-UCAS related technologies, such as aerial refueling for unmanned aircraft and improved stealth, through laboratory research and development efforts. Based on these actions, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To reduce program risk and increase the likelihood of more successful program outcomes by delivering capabilities to the warfighter when needed and within available resources, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Navy and Air Force organizations responsible for the development efforts stemming from the former J-UCAS program to not move into a weapon system acquisition program before determining requirements and balancing them to match proven technologies, a feasible design based on systems engineering by the developer, and available financial resources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since this report was issued, the former J-UCAS program was terminated pursuant to the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. The Navy is proceeding with its own effort, the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. The purpose of the program is to conduct a carrier demonstration of an unmanned combat air system with low observable platforms. DOD has separated the acquisition phase from the technology maturation phase, which should inform a possible Milestone B decision in 2013. This should allow the Navy sufficient time to determine requirements, mature the technologies and design, and ensure adequate resources are available before proceeding with the formal acquisition phase. Our current review of UAS programs (code 120762) found that the Navy is leveraging J-UCAS data to evolve technologies and mitigate risks on UCAS-D. The program is currently on schedule for a 2013 demonstration. The Air Force is pursuing various J-UCAS related technologies, such as aerial refueling for unmanned aircraft, through laboratory research and development efforts. Based on these actions, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To reduce program risk and increase the likelihood of more successful program outcomes by delivering capabilities to the warfighter when needed and within available resources, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Global Hawk program office to update business case elements to reflect the restructured program to include an analysis of alternatives, a justification for investments in the specific quantities needed for each type of Global Hawk Bs being procured (signals intelligence and advanced radar imagery), and a revised cost estimate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD did not concur with this recommendation, stating that its current re-baselining efforts are thorough and provides management with the information needed to make informed decisions. However, on June 5, 2006, following a unit cost breach exceeding 25%, the Secretary of Defense issued a Nunn-McCurdy certification letter. In this certification, the Secretary affirmed that the Global Hawk is still essential to the national security and that no viable alternative exists. In addition, it validated the program's new cost estimates, quantity requirements, and management structure. On March 23, 2007, DOD formally approved the new acquisition program baseline for Global Hawk. This new baseline has revised the cost estimates, reduced the annual procurement quantities, and restructured the program. Based on these actions, we are closing the recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: To reduce program risk and increase the likelihood of more successful program outcomes by delivering capabilities to the warfighter when needed and within available resources, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Global Hawk program office to limit production of the Global Hawk B aircraft to the number needed for flight testing until the developer has demonstrated that signals intelligence and radar imagery subsystems can be integrated and perform as expected in the aircraft.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD disagreed with this recommendation. Its response stated that the program is managing risk and would test and transition new capabilities when mature. DOD stated that our recommendation would stop the production line and incur significant cost and schedule delays. We continue to believe that limiting procurement to test articles until the aircraft and advanced technologies are integrated and operationally tested will lead to better program outcomes. We noted that cost, schedule, and performance status continue to deteriorate and that our position is supported by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation. Since this report was issued, DOD has acknowledged a significant unit cost breach and restructured the program. In June 2006, the Secretary of Defense formally certified the need for the program as required by Nunn McCurdy provisions. In March 2007, DOD approved the new acquisition program baseline. This new baseline has revised the cost estimates, reduced the annual procurement quantities, and restructured the program. We have submitted an accomplishment report (GAO-06-1176R) on reduced procurement in 2006 attributed to those prior engagements.

    Recommendation: To reduce program risk and increase the likelihood of more successful program outcomes by delivering capabilities to the warfighter when needed and within available resources, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Navy and Air Force organizations responsible for the development efforts stemming from the former J-UCAS program to not move into a weapon system acquisition program before establishing strong leadership empowered to carry out the strategy that will work in conjunction with the other services to ensure the design and development continue to incorporate commonality as initiated under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-managed joint program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. Since this report was issued, the former J-UCAS program was terminated pursuant to the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. The Navy is proceeding with its own effort, the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. The purpose of the program is to conduct a carrier demonstration of an unmanned combat air system with low observable platforms. DOD has separated the acquisition phase from the technology maturation phase, which should inform a possible Milestone B decision in 2013. This should allow the Navy sufficient time to determine requirements, mature the technologies and design, and ensure adequate resources are available before proceeding with the formal acquisition phase. Our current review of UAS programs (code 120762) found that the Navy is leveraging J-UCAS data to evolve technologies and mitigate risks on UCAS-D. The program is currently on schedule for a 2013 demonstration. The Air Force is pursuing various J-UCAS related technologies, such as aerial refueling for unmanned aircraft and improved stealth, through laboratory research and development efforts. Based on these actions, we are closing this recommendation as implemented.

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