Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

DOD's Demonstration Approach Has Improved Project Outcomes Gao ID: NSIAD-99-33 August 30, 1999

The Defense Department (DOD) needs unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Since the end of the Vietnam War, DOD has begun at least nine UAV acquisition programs that were later canceled--spending $4 billion in the process. This report reviews current UAV projects to determine whether the military's strategy of conducing advanced concept technology demonstrations before developing and producing UAVs provides better information with which to make acquisition decisions.

GAO noted that: (1) the ACTD strategy of focusing on mature technology and proving military utility before committing to a UAV has expanded DOD's knowledge base, allowing it to make some well informed acquisition decisions; (2) for example, when DOD began the Predator ACTD in 1994, the Predator was considered technologically mature because its design was based on an existing UAV, the Gnat 750; (3) nevertheless, DOD still required that the Predator's performance be demonstrated; (4) prototypes of the Predator were deployed in Bosnia in 1995 and 1996, allowing users to determine whether the UAV would meet their needs; (5) only after this performance data was gathered and analyzed in 1997 was DOD willing to formally commit to the UAV's acquisition; (6) in another case, the ACTD for the DarkStar UAV, DOD gained knowledge early on that led to its decision not to acquire that system; (7) likewise, for the same reason, DOD decided not to acquire the joint-service Outrider UAV on a sole-source basis; (8) DOD's ACTD approach to UAV acquisition is consistent with the best practices of leading commercial developers, which require proof of technological maturity and performance before they will develop or produce a product; (9) on the other hand, DOD's formal acquisition process, used during its earlier UAV efforts, allowed programs to proceed with much less knowledge of technologies, design, and potential production problems; (10) problems with development and production, along with the associated cost and schedule increases, were a predictable consequence of proceeding on such limited knowledge; (11) for example, when DOD committed to the Aquila UAV in 1979, the system was not technologically mature; (12) several of Aquila's key planned subsystems--such as a miniaturized jam-resistant data link and a day-night sensor with laser designator--did not even exist at the time; (13) as a result, by 1982, in large part due to numerous problems in developing subsystem technologies, Aquila development costs had almost quintupled, and the schedule had slipped 27 months; and (14) nevertheless, DOD continued the program until 1987, when, after spending more than $1 billion, it terminated Aquila.

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