The F-35 is not the only aircraft that demonstrates the problems inherent in joint development programs. According to a story at The Intercept, a 2010 Pentagon Inspector General’s report, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, shows how joint Army and Air Force efforts to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) failed to generate projected savings. As the story’s author, Sharon Weinberger, writes,
The report blasts both the Army and the Air Force for spending $115 million in 2008 and 2009 on research efforts that were supposed to help combine their Predator programs, in other words, to buy the same drone. Those efforts were “ineffective,” the report said, depriving the Pentagon of an estimated $400 million in savings that would have resulted.
Weinberger says that the report just became available this week after a five-year wait, but the report’s narrative was already known, at least to a certain degree. Sanford Weiner discussed it in a 2009 essay about Air Force technological advances following the Cold War. According to Weiner, the Air Force had been relatively uninterested in UAVs for much of its history—which is not surprising for a service made up mostly of pilots. Only after the CIA’s introduction of the Predator UAV over Bosnia in the early 1990s did the Air Force become truly interested in the technology. The service took over management of the Predator program a few years later. The successful use of UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the Navy and Army to pursue their programs, with the latter developing a version of the Predator known as the Sky Warrior.
The Air Force thought these programs should be under its management, arguing that jointness required centralized control of the new technology. While centralized Air Force management was rejected, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England did order the merger of the Army Sky Warrior and Air Force Predator programs. According to the Inspector General’s report, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics estimated that resulting economies of scale would result in $400 million in savings over service-specific development programs.
As has been the case with the F-35, economies of scale prove illusory because the services fundamentally disagree about how these technologies should be used. As Weiner and Weinberger both note, the Army uses its UAVs in close coordination with ground units, with pilots serving in-theater, while the Air Force generally uses pilots who serve as far away from units in the field as the United States. Moreover, as Weinberger explains, “The aircraft themselves are also different; for example, the Air Force’s Predator uses jet fuel, while the Army’s can run on heavy fuel.”
The money wasted on this joint development effort is magnified by the opportunity costs. As Weiner argued in 2009,
[I]nstead of trying to suppress competition, this is a technology area well suited to multiple competitive efforts from different agencies. Congress and DoD should try to structure the competition so that the innovative designs that best meet program goals receive additional funding, and so that competing programs are encouraged to learn from each other. Structured competition, not jointness, is most likely to lead to effective, responsive innovation.
The Air Force’s Predator program eventually gave way to the larger Reaper UAV. But the Pentagon’s quixotic efforts to wring savings from joint development programs continue to waste both money and opportunities for the type of competition Weiner proposes. The price of the Army-Air Force Predator dispute, like that of the F-35, should serve as a cautionary tale the next time policymakers argue there are savings to be had from joint aircraft development.