Magazine article National Defense

Pilot-Less Craft Promise Combat Clout

Magazine article National Defense

Pilot-Less Craft Promise Combat Clout

Article excerpt

Unmanned platforms could lead to low-cost, low-risk air campaigns

Two separate, yet related events recently occurred with enormous implications for how U.S. military forces will conduct combat operations in the near future. The first was the loss in Yugoslavia of an Air Force F-117A stealth fighter engaged in Operation Allied Force. Although it is not fully clear how Yugoslavian forces brought the aircraft down, its loss signals the vulnerability of sophisticated aircraft to air defense systems, in this case, one that had been under intense attack for four days.

The second event was the award to The Boeing Company, Seattle, of a $131 million contract for the development of an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) prototype. The plan is to determine whether the use of UCAVs could eventually eliminate the need to risk pilots in future air campa

If UCAVs prove to be technologically feasible, operationally reliable, and-perhaps most significantly-institutionally acceptable by the U.S. military services, they will likely become the spearhead of the revolution in military affairs that the Pentagon has been pursuing, at least verbally, throughout much of this decade.

These systems represent the integration of sophisticated intelligence collection, networked command and control concepts, and precision strike capability. Moreover, they offer the strong prospect of satisfying one of the Defense Department's seemingly endless quests: more bang per buck.

It appears the time to begin aggressively pursuing UCAVs has arrived, additionally, because of budgetary constraints, manpower limitations, and technical maturity.

Despite the Clinton administration's proposal to increase the Pentagon's 2000-2005 budget, there are continuing concerns about the Defense Department's ability to fund both current operational and modernization efforts. Some studies suggest that buying the force structure and investment program in the Pentagon's 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review may require nearly doubling the current procurement accounts.

Particularly controversial are the costs of the future tactical air program, specifically the Air Force's F-22 fighter, the Navy's F/A18E/F fighter-bomber, and the multi-service joint strike fighter (JSF). Together these systems represent some $350 billion in future investments, nearly 40 percent of the cost of the Pentagon's top 20 programs.

Two of these programs face major budgetary challenges. Recent press reports revealed that the F-22 has been experiencing significant cost growth during the past year which may add as much as $1 billion to total program costs. Since the program is currently operating within specific caps imposed by a Congress concerned about cost growth, the possibility is growing that the size of the ultimate buy may be reduced.

As for the JSF, the proposal of one of the competing teams was recently significantly redesigned amid growing concerns that this program also will result in aircraft costing considerably more than the currently advertised $28 million per copy. When taking into account other procurement demands, such as national missile defense, adding funds to tactical aircraft will be difficult. This suggests that efforts are needed to acquire aircraft having equivalent strike capability with lower unit costsAnother budgetary concern arises from the difficulty the Pentagon has had in controlling growth in its operations and maintenance (O&M) accounts. As a percentage of the defense budget, O&M currently is at a historic high. Until 1965, it accounted for about 25 percent of the defense budget. By the end of the Cold War, it had risen to nearly 30 percent. Currently, it accounts for nearly 37 percent of defense expenditures.

The projection for O&M spending out to 2005 reflected in the current budget is nearly $100 billion per year, a 10 percent increase above last years figure. Curbing these costs will necessitate a broad-front effort in numerous activities including developing combat systems that have lower life cycle costs. …

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