> our title:

Part 2: Reaper UAV's Cost and Performance Questioned

> original title:

Part 2. Drone Myth: Cheap Cost (excerpt)

(Source: Center For Defense Information; issued February 28, 2012)

The second of my series on the MQ-9 Reaper drone at Time's Battleland blog is on the subject of cost and some measures of performance.

The conventional wisdom, widely reported in the press, is that drones, such as Reaper, are cheaper to buy and operate than manned aircraft. That "wisdom" is badly misinformed. The cost comparisons are not even close.

Find the first part of this series--on Reaper basics and pundits' rhetoric on drones--from Monday at http://battleland.blogs.time.com/2012/02/27/1-the-reaper-revolution-revisited/.

Tomorrow's part of the series addresses the performance dimension of Reaper (and drones in general) that many regard as their most important and their biggest advantage over manned aircraft: the ability to find and identify targets. Fasten your seat belt.

The MQ-9's Cost and Performance

Because of Reaper's nature, unit-cost estimates can be tricky. Various media reports cite a per-unit cost from $4 million to $5 million. They are quite incorrect.

Because they are integral to Reaper's ability to operate, the ground components for it must be included, and a Combat Air Patrol, or "CAP" (i.e. the specified Reaper operating unit), consists of four air vehicles, not one. Accordingly, the Air Force factsheet for Reaper cites a unit cost not for one air vehicle but for a Reaper CAP ("four aircraft with sensors") at $53.5 million in FY 2006 dollars (which would be $60.3 million in 2012 dollars).[1] But even that Air Force fact sheet calculation is incomplete.

It does not include development and other costs that are included in DOD's summary Selected Acquisition Reports (SARs). The latest SAR available (from December 2010) shows a cost of $11.3 billion (in 2008 dollars) for the then-planned total purchase of 399[2] individual Reaper air vehicles and associated ground equipment.[3] In contemporary 2012 dollars that comes to $12.1 billion, which calculates to $30.2 million for each individual Reaper and its share of ground equipment, or $120.8 million for a complete, operable CAP of four.[4] (Given the infrequency at which Reaper flies in comparison to typical combat aircraft, the four Reaper calculation is apt for comparing to manned aircraft. This issue is discussed more in later parts of this series.)

The actual cost for a Reaper unit is $120.8 million in 2012 dollars. Given the newly announced reduction in Reaper production rates, the elements that Reaper uses but charged to other programs (summarized in Part 1) and the statement that some additional ground control stations may be bought, the $120.8 million unit cost is an underestimate; however, the data are unavailable to know by how much.

Reaper unit cost is well above that of the aircraft frequently compared to it: the F-16 and the A-10. The Air Force's "factsheet" on the F-16C cites an $18.8 million unit cost in 1998 dollars (or $27.2 million in 2012 dollars);[5] GAO cites F-16C unit procurement cost, not including R&D which is not readily available for inclusion, at $55 million per copy.[6] For the A-10, the Air Force factsheet cites no estimate for the unit cost,[7] but GAO cited a total program unit cost (including R&D) at $11.8 million in 1994 dollars (or $18.8 million in 2012 dollars). There have been modifications to the A-10 since that GAO estimate, even if they were to double the cost of the aircraft, it would remain a fraction of the cost to buy a Reaper unit.

Reaper is not cheaper to buy than aircraft it is compared to; it is multiples more expensive: from two to six times more costly.[8]

Nor is Reaper cheaper to operate, despite initial appearances. Air Force flying hour cost data shows Reaper to cost only $3,624 per hour to fly in 2011 for what the Air Force terms "operational" flying hour costs.[9] That compares to the much higher hourly cost to fly A-10s or F-16s: $17,780 per hour for the newly modified A-10C and $20,809 for an F-16C.

However, because each Reaper flies a large number of hours in the air, the math suppresses the per-hour Reaper number. If the calculation is for total maintenance costs over the course of a year for a Reaper unit, the relationship changes: at a per year cost of $5.1 million, per individual Reaper, and at $20.4 million per CAP, the Reaper shows itself to be well above the cost to maintain and operate over a year for an individual A-10C (at $5.5 million) or an F-16C (at $4.8 million).[10] Annual operating unit cost for a Reaper unit is about four times the annual cost to operate an F-16 or an A-10. (end of excerpt)

Click here for the rest of the story, on the CDI website.