Procurement: July 7, 2004

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UAV fans are getting nervous about how the U.S. Department of Defenses bad procurement habits continue to cripple UAV development programs. Over the last two decades, the Department of Defense has spent about six billion dollars on UAVs. But so much of that was spent on research and development, that only a few hundred UAVs actually found their way into service. At an average cost of over $10 million per UAV, many military people and legislators wonder if UAVs are really a viable approach. But new companies keep coming up with cheap, rugged, reliable and useful UAV designs. So the different services are taking matters into their own hands, and making their own deals to buy the cheap UAVs that will do one or more jobs well. This has proven particularly the case with the under-ten-pound micro-UAVs the combat troops like so much. These are relatively cheap (under $20,000 each, and often much cheaper), and their small size makes it impossible to gold plate (keep adding new features) to them. Its the gold plating that has killed so many UAV projects. The larger UAVs are still suffering from that long time Department of Defense disease. The Global Hawk UAV, for example, is the size of an executive jet, and keeps getting new gadgets added. The current model may cost up to $70 million each. This is still cheaper than any equivalent manned aircraft, but hardly an aircraft you can afford to lose (and two have been lost already.) There are a growing number of UAV supporters in the Department of Defense and Congress who are demanding that UAVs be kept cheap and simple. But thats not popular talk in a military-industrial complex that is more partial to expensive and complex. But the suppliers of sensors and communications gear for many new UAVs are coming from companies that do not normally get military contracts. These new outfits are unaware of what cant be done and are delivering technology that is cheap, reliable and gets the job done. The battles over procuring more UAVs are revealing a major shift in the way the Department of Defense goes about getting new weapons and equipment. The traditional suppliers are too slow and expensive. Well, they were always too slow and expensive, but now there are new suppliers who are not and the comparisons between the old crowd and the new are not flattering for the traditionalists. 

 


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