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The US and its UAVs: The Financial Cost versus Strategic Value of Drones

The US and its UAVs: The Financial Cost versus Strategic Value of Drones

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MQ-9 ReaperOne of the more prominent aspects of the discourse on drones is the cost-benefit tradeoff in their acquisition and use.  While ASP’s analysis indicates that drones, in general, are slightly more cost effective to acquire and operate than conventional manned aircraft, it should be noted that a detailed look reveals mixed results for individual UAV models.

It is challenging to construct a reasonable and meaningful comparison of the costs associated with defense technology.  The composition of cost estimates is not well-defined – especially as to whether and where research and development expenditures are included.  Consequently, comparisons to date have been made as good faith efforts based on unclassified and publicly available information.

While broadly speaking, drones maintain a slight cost advantage over their manned counterparts, it cannot be said that they are categorically cheaper.  The chart below uses the previous analysis by ASP as its foundation for determining comparative cost advantages between drones and conventional aircraft.

Table 1: Comparative Values of Select UAV Models versus Conventional Aircraft

UAV Model

Aircraft Model

Acquisition Cost (APUC)

Operations & Support

UAV Model

Aircraft Model

Acquisition Cost (APUC)

Operations & Support

MQ-1 Predator

F-15C

less

less

 

MQ-1C Gray Eagle

F-15C

less

less

F-16C/D

less

less

 

F-16C/D

more

more

F-22

less

less

 

F-22

less

less

F-35

less

less

 

F-35

less

more

A-10 Th. II

less

N/A

 

A-10 Th. II

more

N/A

AC-130H

less

N/A

 

AC-130H

more

N/A

AH-64

less

less

 

AH-64

less

more

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UAV Model

Aircraft Model

Acquisition Cost (APUC)

Operations & Support

UAV Model

Aircraft Model

Acquisition Cost (APUC)

Operations & Support

MQ-9 Reaper

F-15C

less

less

 

RQ-4 Global Hawk

F-15C

more

more

F-16C/D

less

less

 

F-16C/D

more

more

F-22

less

less

 

F-22

less

less

F-35

less

less

 

F-35

more

more

A-10 Th. II

less

N/A

 

A-10 Th. II

more

N/A

AC-130H

less

N/A

 

AC-130H

more

N/A

AH-64

less

less

 

AH-64

more

more

(Chart references data compiled from unclassified Department of Defense Selected Acquisition Reports {SARs} for “The Strategic Context of Lethal Drones: A framework for discussion,” by Joshua Foust and Ashley S. Boyle for the American Security Project.  Please note that “APUC” indicates the Average Procurement Unit Cost.)  

As seen above, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper cost less than the seven aircraft against which they are compared.  However, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and RQ-4 Global Hawk present mixed results, with the Global Hawk being more expensive nearly without exception.  However, as Predators and Reapers are more widely used than the other two UAV models, allowing drones to maintain the slight cost advantage.

Of all drones in operational use, the RQ-4 Global Hawk has generated the most debate about the cost of UAS technology.  In 2011, the Global Hawk Block 30 fleet, with a per-aircraft cost upwards of $100 million, breached cost limits set in accordance with the Nunn-McCurdy Act.  The US Air Force requested in January that it end further procurement of Block 30 Global Hawks while proposing to keep its fleet of U-2 planes flying beyond a 2015 retirement date.  In early August, however, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to include funding in defense budgets to continue the development and acquisition of the Global Hawk, in a decision that seemingly pays no mind to whether the strategic value justifies the expenditure.

Ultimately, the financial cost of drones – a quantifiable measure – must be evaluated against the strategic benefits derived from their use.  The strategic value is not readily quantifiable, if it is at all measured, and the recent contention over the Global Hawk’s procurement costs versus its operational value highlights the importance of this issue.

There are two preeminent challenges in evaluating of the strategic benefits of UAVs in specific operations environments.  The first is the lack of a methodology to evaluate the effects of the use of UAVs.  A methodology for the identification, collection, and analysis of relevant data would create a reliable framework from which the strategic value of drone technology could be quantified and evaluated.  There are few case studies – included in ASP’s Drone Resources Library – that propose reasonable and feasible methodologies and metrics for measuring the broader strategic effects of drone operations.  However, most proposed methodologies rely on data that is difficult to collect, biased in nature, or is altogether unavailable.

This is the second and more significant, challenge: the availability of empirical data on post-strike effects.  The most frequently cited statistic from drone strikes is the resulting number of deaths.  It is well-established that these data are generally inaccurate by means of collection or manipulated to serve an ideological purpose.  Similarly, it is hard to develop an accurate picture of how drone strikes are reshaping the threat profile of terrorist organizations, in part because the influences are specific to locality.  Finally, there is no clear definition of which second- and third-order effects may be of importance and should be measured.

It is difficult to measure that which is inherently secretive.  Terrorist organizations are not forthcoming about the damage inflicted by drone strikes; and where these groups have access to casualty statistics, they are able to manipulate the data as much as any other constituency with a vested interest in counterterrorism operations.  However, developing a methodology for collecting and analyzing data is formative to evaluating the strategic value of using drones in counterterrorism operations.  The benefit of understanding the strategic value of drones in relation to financial costs is twofold.  This understanding supports lean defense budgeting that saves money without sacrificing capability.  It is also a cornerstone of results-driven policy-making that is lacking in US counterterrorism strategy.

~ ~ ~

The American Security Project recently hosted an event on U.S. Drones Policy which discussed at length the need for better empirical data and a means of measuring the effects of drone strikes.  Access information and media from the event here.


 

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