Sunday, November 30, 2008

UAV cost scissors watch

I've long been sceptical of the UAV future. Basically, back in 2005, I reckoned that as the things get more complicated their advantages over manned aircraft disappear; the biggest advantage is that they are meant to be expendable, and things that are expendable get expended. Therefore the loss rate is much higher, both from enemy action and from accidents. As they get more expensive (the RAF's new ones actually cost more than the list price of a Tornado), this must mean that their advantages will be eroded. Another issue is the satcomms requirement; therefore, I thought, the successful ones would be the cheapest and most basic, as far as possible controlled directly by ground forces rather than people at Nellis Air Force Base.

Now, looky here. Yes, it's Lewis "The navy only needs two ships" Page, but the story checks out. The British Army, and also the RAF, have been buying twin-engine light aircraft to fit out as advanced tactical reconnaissance platforms. Specifically, we're dealing with a Canadian plane called a Twin Star, prized for its highly efficient diesel engines which give it a very long endurance. This is also likely to be used for the missions flown by Army Islanders over the UK at the moment from Northolt.


Anonymous said...

While you're right that the prices of some UAVs are absurd, there are several classes of UAVs with very different loss rates and very different price tags. The smaller, tactical ones like the Desert Hawk cost in the same ballpark as a JDAM (that only lasts for one mission), and the value of the tactical intelligence can easily be worth the cost of the aircraft. Loss rates are indeed high, but in my mind this is an acceptable trade off for the value of the intel. These aircraft typically have short range point-to-point links rather than the expensive satcoms and much of the cost is in the sensors rather than the airframe.

The larger, strategic aircraft like the Global Hawk are more expensive ($140 million in 2006) than similar sized commercial aircraft (say a Boeing 737 for $85 million), but do have capabilities that the U2 it is replacing does not possess. Time on station and ability to switch crews is a big one. Much of the cost is justified in the sat coms and sensors, as you explained, but this sort of aircraft is not viewed as disposable. The loss rates on these aircraft are much lower than the smaller ones, but still higher than equivalent manned aircraft.

I'm in the industry working on very inexpensive tactical UAVs and marvel at the prices that the top-tier defense contractors charge for their systems. The Watchkeeper and Firescout are both good examples of the bloat that you describe: $30 million for a Watchkeeper compared to $32 for a Tornado? $15 million for a Firescout that is based on a $700k Schweizer 333? Those prices seem very hard to justify for what are mid-range UAVs.

Alex said...

Great, great comment.

One upshot of the bloat problem is that it diminishes the relative advantage we hope to have; Globalhawk or Watchkeeper are Big Engineering, but even Pakistan makes little drones.

Anonymous said...

How much of this financial bloat problem is to do with the fact that a basic military-grade communications node and some image acquisition is actaully quite a hard thing to automate? The guy in the front is easy enough to replace, but there are some annoyingly complex things that that guy in the back has to do once in while, and unless you can expensively replicate these, you're faced with the task of making real certain that the guy on the base reliably gets all the unprocessed feeds to play with.

The airframe might be cheap, but that's a non sequiteur: the avionics have been the expensive bit since before I was born.

Chris Williams

ajay said...

This would be an ideal application for a Shorts Sunderland,if it weren't for Afghanistan's irritating lack of sea. Fourteen plus hours endurance, and bunk beds and a galley in the back!

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