Unmanned aircraft systems have long held great promise for military operations, but technology has only recently matured enough to exploit that potential. The Department of Defense (DoD) has published detailed, unclassified plans to purchase over the next ten years about 730 new medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft systems that are designed for reconnaissance and light attack missions. CBO estimates that completing those investments would cost about $37 billion through 2020. At the request of the House Budget Committee, today CBO released a study comparing the costs of DoDs plans for those systems and the capabilities they might provide with the costs and capabilities of some alternative plans. The options are meant to illustrate the implications of different approaches to enhancing capabilities and are not designed to reach any specific goal or to counter any specific adversaries that might arise in the future.
CBO has analyzed eight alternativesthree for the Air Force and five for the Armyto the services near-term plans for expanding their fleets of medium-sized and large unmanned aircraft. The options would vary the mix of unmanned aircraft systems that are purchased, the way that unmanned systems are assigned to units and operated in geographic areas where units are deployed, or both. Through 2020, the costs of the options examined by CBO would range from $3.7 billion less than DoDs plan to $2.9 billion more. The study presents each alternatives likely effect on force-wide capability and acquisition costs. To compare the capability that could be expected as a result of such changes, CBO calculated an aggregate measurethe payload-durationthat captures both the ability of an aircraft to carry sensors or weapons (payload) and its ability to remain orbiting over a given location (duration).
The Air Forces Plans and Options
The Air Force currently operates at least four types of medium-sized or large unmanned aircraft: Global Hawks, Predators, Reapers, and Sentinels. The Air Forces near-term goals are to increase the number of aircraft that can be continuously and simultaneously operated by purchasing 28 of the large Global Hawk aircraft through 2018 and 480 medium-sized aircraft (either Reapers or a follow-on design) through 2020. CBO estimates that those plans will cost about $20 billion. Plans for stealthy aircraft such as the Sentinelwhose mere existence was only recently acknowledged by the Air Forceremain classified.
CBOs three options for the Air Force examine the implications of more quickly developing and fielding a new aircraftnotionally dubbed the MQ-SXthat would be intermediate in size between the Reaper and the Global Hawk. Specifically,
The Armys Plans and Options
The Army currently operates three types of medium-sized unmanned aircraft systems: Hunters, Shadows, and Predators (or aircraft closely based on the Predator). Over the next five years, the Army plans to continue upgrading the capabilities of its existing Shadows, and to purchase 107 more medium-altitude Grey Eagles (the Armys name for its latest version of the Predator). CBO estimates that those plans will cost about $6 billion.
CBO examined five options for the Army involving purchasing aircraft other than the Grey Eagles and changing the way unmanned aircraft support would be provided to Army units in the field. Specifically:
This study was prepared by Bernard Kempinski of CBOs National Security Division.