Magazine article National Defense

Military Taking Larger Role in Drone Sustainment

Magazine article National Defense

Military Taking Larger Role in Drone Sustainment

Article excerpt

As the conflict in Afghanistan draws to a close, the Defense Department finds itself having to maintain unmanned aircraft fleets with less money and fewer resources.

Experts and industry officials forecast a growing need for sustainment services, but the budget crunch is prompting the services to look for creative ways to shoulder the logistics burden, including performing some of the work in military depots.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted the Pentagon to rapidly field a menagerie of unmanned aerial systems in large quantities. The need to quickly put such capabilities into the hands of troops outweighed long term sustainability planning, which often occurred late in development, according to the Defense Department's unmanned systems integrated roadmap released last December.

"Many programs have been procured as vertically integrated, vendor-proprietary solutions relying on a single prime contractor who was often held accountable to meet many criteria, including a compressed delivery schedule," it said.

"These rapidly-fielded programs are often immature in terms of reliability and supportability and are heavily reliant on contractor logistics support."

"As budget pressures increase, programs must develop more cost-effective sustainment solutions," the roadmap said.

Calculating the market for UAS sustainment can be difficult because most of those dollars come from operations and maintenance funding, which isn't always itemized, said Michael Blades, aerospace and defense senior industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan.

The U.S. military drone market - which includes procurement and research, development, testing and evaluation funding - will be increasing about 2.2 percent a year for the next five years, he said. When taking inflation into account, that's a flat market.

If the military is not procuring as many remotely piloted aircraft, it will need to focus on supporting what it has, Blades said.

"I could probably guess that the increase in sustainment is probably 2 to 5 percent per year," he said. "They have to increase the capabilities of these platforms without buying new platforms. They're going to be putting different data links on, different sensors and all that, so I think that's going to be where your growth comes in."

The Pentagon spent $1.4 billion on UAS support in fiscal year 2012. That sum includes maintenance, repair, logistics and training costs, Blades said. He did not have data for 2013.

General Atomics in 2012 raked in $380 million for the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and $350 million for the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper sustainment contracts, Blades said. AAI Corp. earned $270 million supporting the RQ-7 Shadow. The Defense Department also paid $135 million to sustain Boeing Insitu ScanEagles.

In a time of fiscal austerity, the military's UAS sustainment needs are growing, but defense contractors may not be able to fully take advantage of it.

As the Pentagon's roadmap points out, Title 10 of the U.S. Code dictates that the "Department of Defense maintain a core logistics capability that is governmentowned and government-operated."

The military resisted such limitations during the past decade of war, but is gradually moving its unmanned systems into compliance with the law, industry officials said.

The 2012 and 2013 National Defense Authorization Acts contained new rules that mandate sustainability planning occur earlier in UAS development. Approval for milestones A and B and low rate initial production will not be granted to new programs that have not gone through the process of estimating depot-level maintenance needs and forming detailed logistics requirements, the roadmap said.

Such planning will allow the military to reduce contractor logistics support and be able to sustain its own drone fleets at an earlier timeframe, it said. The military has four years after a weapon system's initial operating capability to establish its own depot-level maintenance and repair capability, including the facilities, equipment, associated logistics capabilities, technical data and trained personnel. …

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