Combat Drone Project Exposes Pitfalls of Joint-Service Programs

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WHEN THE PENTAGON quashed a multibillion-dollar Air Force-Navy combat drone program earlier this year, experts contended this was proof that joint service projects are doomed from the get-go.

"Any time you try to design a joint aircraft, there are challenges," says David L. Vesely, a retired Air Force lieutenant general with extensive experience in procurement programs.

The complexity of making multi-service aircraft is most evident in systems that are intended for both Air Force and Navy operations.

The F-35 joint strike fighter--currently in development by Lockheed Martin Corp.--has three variants, but 80 percent of the components are common to all three. Nevertheless, there are stringent specifications that are unique to the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, Vesely says.

Navy warplanes are particularly demanding because they operate from aircraft carrier decks. They employ different fuels, for example, and must comply with a host of safety regulations that would not apply to aircraft launched from land bases. Navy aircraft have heavier landing gear and the added weight diminishes their range.

They are built with special materials and components that can survive in a highly corrosive environment. Even the aerial refueling equipment and the electronic defensive gear are different in Navy and Air Force jets, Vesely notes. The shipboard-unique features generally make Navy jets more expensive, he says. "The Air Force is not necessarily willing to pay for those additional requirements."

These issues inevitably would have sparked clashes between the services if both had continued to develop the so-called joint unmanned combat air system, or J-UCAS, which was cancelled in February.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had managed the program since 1999, but it became clear that the services did not like that arrangement, Vesely says. "The services didn't want DARPA running the program." One major problem for the services was that DARPA focused on building J-UCAS prototypes without addressing long-term issues such as logistics support, maintenance, spare parts and training. …