Military mismatch yields costly groan over U.S. drone

April 14, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- The well-oiled coordination the Pentagon showed during Operation Desert Storm appears to be missing from its latest effort to develop a pilotless spy plane.

In this case, the Navy and Air Force teamed up to produce what government auditors reveal is a multimillion-dollar misfit.

The Navy designed the drone, and the Air Force designed the payload -- a sophisticated video recorder -- only to discover afterward that the payload is too big for the plane or, conversely, that the plane is too small for the payload.

There are "two possible solutions" to the quandary, the Pentagon points out: "Modify the payload or modify the air vehicle."

The General Accounting Office detailed the error in a report yesterday on the Pentagon's unmanned aerial vehicle, a $2 billion program to build pilotless aircraft to survey enemy territory and send pictures back.

The mismatch and a handful of other woes will reportedly drive the squat drone's development costs from the original $200 million estimate to more than $300 million.

The troublesome payload is the Pentagon's Advanced Tactical Air Reconnaissance System, which is to be used aboard warplanes as well as on the new drone.

The problem began when the Air Force realized its scheme for the payload would result in a 60-pound video recorder. "According to Air Force officials, dividing the recorder into two lighter components was dictated by a military standard which requires that equipment to be lifted by military personnel weigh no more than 37 pounds," the GAO said.

So instead of one 60-pound rectangular box, the Air Force broke the recorder into two boxes that take up 20 percent more space.

Air Force officials notified Navy officials responsible for fitting the bigger payload into piloted Navy airplanes. But they never informed the Navy officials who were designing a pilotless drone that was only big enough to carry the original recorder.

The mismatch wasn't discovered until a so-called "coordination meeting." There, the drone and payload builders and the Navy and Air Force found they couldn't get the redesigned recorder into the drone.

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