Unmanned Aircraft Systems:

Comprehensive Planning and a Results-Oriented Training Strategy Are Needed to Support Growing Inventories

GAO-10-331: Published: Mar 26, 2010. Publicly Released: Mar 26, 2010.

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The Department of Defense (DOD) requested about $6.1 billion in fiscal year 2010 for new unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and for expanded capabilities in existing ones. To support ongoing operations, the Air Force and Army have acquired a greater number of larger systems. GAO was asked to determine the extent to which (1) plans were in place to account for the personnel, facilities, and communications infrastructure needed to support Air Force and Army UAS inventories; (2) DOD addressed challenges that affect the ability of the Air Force and the Army to train personnel for UAS operations; and (3) DOD updated its publications that articulate doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures to reflect the knowledge gained from using UAS in ongoing operations. Focusing on UAS programs supporting ongoing operations, GAO reviewed the services' program and funding plans in light of DOD's requirements definition and acquisition policy; interviewed UAS personnel in the United States and in Iraq about training experiences; and reviewed joint, multiservice, and service-specific publications.

DOD continues to increase UAS inventories, but in some cases, the Air Force and the Army lack robust plans that account for the personnel, facilities, and some communications infrastructure to support them. Regarding personnel, the Air Force and the Army have identified limitations in their approaches to provide personnel to meet current and projected UAS force levels, but they have not yet fully developed plans to supply needed personnel. Further, although DOD has recently requested funding and plans to request additional funds, the Air Force and the Army have not completed analyses to specify the number and type of facilities needed to support UAS training and operations. Having identified a vulnerability to the communications infrastructure network used to control UAS missions, the Air Force is taking steps to mitigate the risk posed by a natural or man-made disruption to the network but has not formalized a plan in the near term to provide for the continuity of UAS operations in the event of a disruption. While DOD guidance encourages planning for factors needed to operate and sustain a weapon system program in the long term, several factors have contributed to a lag in planning efforts, such as the rapid fielding of new systems and the expansion of existing ones. In the absence of comprehensive planning, DOD does not have reasonable assurance that Air Force and Army approaches will support current and projected UAS inventories. The lack of comprehensive plans also limits the ability of decision makers to make informed funding choices. 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 UAS operations. GAO found that the limited amount of DOD-managed airspace adversely affected the amount of training that personnel conducted to prepare for deployments. As UAS are fielded in greater numbers, DOD will require access to more airspace for training; for example, DOD estimated that based on planned UAS inventories in fiscal year 2013, the military services will require more than 1 million flight hours to train UAS personnel within the United States. Further, Air Force UAS personnel and Army ground units have limited opportunities to train together in a joint environment, and they have not maximized the use of available assets during training. Current UAS simulators also have limited capabilities to 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. 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. In many cases, DOD's UAS publications articulating doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures did not include updated information needed by manned and unmanned aircraft operators, military planners, and ground units to understand current practices and capabilities. Such information can serve as the foundation for effective joint training programs and can assist military personnel in integrating UAS on the battlefield.

Status Legend:

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  • 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 ensure that UAS inventories are fully supported in the long term, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force and the Secretary of the Army, in coordination with the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, to conduct comprehensive planning as part of the decision-making process to field new systems or to further expand existing capabilities to account for factors necessary to operate and sustain these programs. At a minimum, this planning should be based on a rigorous analysis of the personnel and facilities needed to operate and sustain UAS and include the development of detailed action plans that identify milestones for tracking progress and synchronize funding and personnel.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The House Armed Services Committee incorporated GAO's recommendation into the House report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2011, directing DOD to report its planned UAS inventory and personnel levels, current and planned basing and operating locations, facilities available to support UAS inventories, and steps the services will take to overcome airspace and training range availability. In April 2012, DOD finalized its report to the congressional defense committees based on the House Armed Services Committee direction and our recommendation. Specifically, DOD's report provides a detailed analysis of current and planned UAS inventories by system type and fiscal year through fiscal year 2017, and details the military service's plans and progress to supply the necessary personnel to operate and maintain unmanned aircraft and sensor payloads. The report also identifies current and potential basing and operating locations and identifies the UAS able to operate at the potential sites. DOD's report also identifies past, current, and future facility projects by service, including a status update on the facility completion, and provides a description of each service's mitigation plans to address airspace limitations currently impacting UAS training.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the Air Force can address the near-term risk of disruption to the communications infrastructure network used to control UAS missions, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to establish a milestone for finalizing a near-term plan to provide for the continuity of UAS operations that can be rapidly implemented in the event of a disruption and is based on a detailed analysis of available options.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on our draft report, DOD concurred with this recommendation. In March 2011, DOD reported that the Air Force has a back-up plan to address communication disruptions.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOD can comprehensively resolve challenges that affect the ability of the Air Force and the Army to train personnel for UAS operations, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, in coordination with the military services and other organizations as appropriate, to develop a results-oriented training strategy that provides detailed information on the steps that DOD will take to (1) identify and address the effects of competition and airspace restrictions on UAS training, (2) increase the opportunities that Army ground units and Air Force UAS personnel have to train together in a joint environment, (3) maximize the use of available assets in training exercises, and (4) upgrade UAS simulation capabilities to enhance training. At a minimum, the strategy should describe overarching goals, the priority and interrelationships among initiatives, progress made to date, milestones for achieving goals, and the resources required to accomplish the strategy's goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. DOD's April 2012 Report to Congress on Future Unmanned Aircraft Systems Training, Operations, and Sustainability, stated that the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness, Directorate for Training Readiness and Strategy, was developing a comprehensive DoD UAS training strategy which will result in a UAS Training Roadmap. In October 2013, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Directorate for Training and Readiness Policy and Programs, tasked RAND Corporation with gathering, analyzing, and reporting on issues related to UAS training and integration that was intended to provide additional analysis in support of the development of UAS training strategies. RAND identified several training issues and potential solutions related to our recommendations. Building on their findings and recommendations, RAND has now been tasked by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness with developing a UAS training strategy, and according to DOD and RAND officials, this strategy will address the issues identified in our report. DOD needs to follow through with developing this strategy to ensure it can comprehensively resolve UAS training challenges.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that all stakeholders, including unmanned aircraft operators, military planners, and ground units, have comprehensive and timely information on UAS practices and capabilities, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force and the Secretary of the Army to assign personnel to update key UAS publications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on our draft report, DOD concurred with this recommendation. In March 2011, DOD reported that a UAS Tiger Team has been created to facilitate identification of training requirements and develop a concept of operations for UAS continuation training, which will include the GAO recommendations. The department finalized updates to the Multi-service Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in September 2011 and the Joint Concept of Operations for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in November 2011. Both publications contain current information on capabilities and practices of all of DOD's UAS.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force, the Secretary of the Army, and the Secretary of the Navy to take steps to coordinate the efforts to develop publications for those UAS where there is commonality among the services.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on our draft report, DOD concurred with this recommendation. In March 2011, DOD reported that military personnel are updating regulations, the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Task Force is initiating the third edition of its Unmanned Systems Roadmap, and the Joint UAS Center of Excellence is writing the third version of the UAS Concept of Operations to address these recommendations. Additionally, according to a 2014 RAND report "Building Towards a UAS Training Strategy", the services have agreed to a set of multi-service tactics, techniques, and procedures to be incorporated into their respective training programs. These procedures are described as multi-service instead of joint, thereby avoiding doctrinal issues on how to deploy and manage UAS even as the services support joint operations.

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