The US Air Force could save $3.7 billion by buying a stealthier - although overall less capable - aircraft than the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk. The US Army could also save $1 billion by slashing by half its fleet of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1C Gray Eagles, as well as adopting the USAF's approach to operating the aircraft from a remote single base.

As Department of Defense officials continue searching for ways to slash costs by $400 billion over the next five years, a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) lays out these alternative scenarios to current plans calling for spending more than $35 billion over the next 10 years on six types of unmanned aircraft systems.

The report, titled 'Policy Options for Unmanned Aircraft Systems,' describes in rough terms the probable effects of changing USAF and army UAS acquisition strategies through 2020. The document lays out eight options, three for the air force and five for the army, generalising these by relative cost, quantity and capability.

 Gray Eagle UAV in Iraq - US Army
 © US Army

The air force's scenarios involve changing the planned purchase of the MQ-SX, a notional aircraft that "would have some characteristics consistent with those the air force is considering for its proposed MQ-X." The MQ-X is slated to replace the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper as its flagship UAS.

According to the CBO, the USAF could replace 24 Global Hawks with 24 new MQ-SXs for a projected saving of $3.7 billion. It also notes the service could replace 336 Reapers on a one-for-one basis, but that this would cost an extra $2.9 billion. To break even, the USAF would have to replace 336 Reapers with 224 faster and more stealthy MQ-SX aircraft.

The army's scenarios revolve around the Reaper, the Gray Eagle and Northrop Grumman's MQ-8 Fire Scout. The only operational considerations are two scenarios in which the army remote-splits operations with fewer aircraft to decrease costs, a standard practice in the air force but shunned by the army as disconnecting the drone from the warfighter.

The CBO also shows two alternatives that would not increase costs for the army. It could replace 78 MQ-1Cs with 350 Fire Scouts for no extra cost, or switch out 78 Gray Eagles for 69 Reapers. A one-for-one replacement of 78 Gray Eagles for Reapers would cost an extra $500 million, the CBO explained.

Source: Flight International