Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fiscal Reality Hits the Navy's UAV Fleet

Though budgets for unmanned systems in the U.S. Navy have been growing rapidly the past few years, even these programs have not been immune from the chopping block in the 2014 budget.  Several cuts have been announced in the past weeks.  The RQ-21 program appears to be shaved from both a Navy and Marine Corps system to possibly a Marine Corps-only aircraft to be deployed on and from Navy ships.  Some technical delays and likely budget shortfalls have caused delays in production of Northrop Grumman's exorbitantly-costly MQ-4C Triton UAV, with $25 million shifted from Fiscal Year 14 to 15. 



Triton UAV production has been delayed.  Will other Navy drone
programs feel the pain?
The future total buy of another important ISR aircraft, Northrop's MQ-8 Fire Scout, is up in the air.  During a briefing on the FY 14 budget, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget Rear Admiral Joseph Mulloy remarked, "it'll be next year before I could lay out where I go with MQ-8."  The aircraft continues to set flying hour records while deployed to the Middle East and Mediterranean on Perry Frigates.  Another consideration for acquisition plans will be the additional aircraft that will be freed up for shipboard service in the next year or so when navy Fire Scout detachments are withdrawn from Afghanistan.

Even with these cuts, major unmanned acquisition programs continue at a rapid pace.  In a post earlier this year, we mentioned that affordability should be one of the desired attributes of the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike program.  Interestingly, Lockheed Martin has begun selling this angle with their recently announced entry into the Navy's UCLASS competition.  Robert Ruszkowski, Lockheed's director of UCLASS program remarked on this aspect of LMT's proposal when he noted that the system was leveraging components from other Lockmart aircraft and "trying to keep the system affordable, this will not be anywhere near a replacement for an A-6 from a strike perspective."

Given the ongoing austere budget environment, the Navy might need to consider taking appetite suppressants on additional unmanned systems.  Low hanging fruit might be some of the more questionable R&D efforts.  Although these ONR efforts usually pale in comparison to big ticket programs like the Triton, they add up.  Can we suggest the robotic jellyfish for a start?