The U.S. Department of Defense needs to lay out a clear path to coordinate strategy on its lighter-than-air vessels, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
Although the vessel technology is less flashy than other technology, the DoD spent almost $1.3 billion on the vessels in fiscal 2012.
The GAO’s report warns that if DoD wishes to continue investing in this technology, it must improve coordination and oversight of the projects. Between June 2011 and October 2012, the period the review was conducted, “DoD did not have a reliable inventory of its aerostat and airship efforts, including insight into its entire investment in aerostats and airships, or an office that could discuss the status of all of these efforts.”
What information has been shared has been almost exclusively technical.
“DOD has not provided effective oversight to ensure coordination of its aerostat and airship development and acquisition efforts,” the investigators concluded.
Aerostats (buoyant craft tethered to the ground) and airships (free-flying craft) have the potential to boost intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and communications abilities, while also potentially lowering cargo transport costs. The craft are ideal for ISR missions because they can hover over a targeted area longer than fixed-wing aircraft.
DoD has spent almost $7 billion on 15 “key programs” studied by GAO for its report. Many of these programs experienced cost overruns, and in the rush to get the technology into the field, the Pentagon failed to lay out a strategic plan for the vessels.
More than 100 aerostats are deployed for ISR in Afghanistan. In August, the Army graduated two classes of soldiers trained to operate the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) System, despite the service pushing back the deployment date on the aerostat until 2014.
Like many defense programs, future funding of aerostats and airships is in question. Recognizing this, the report lays out two recommendations for moving forward.
If funding is curtailed, the Pentagon should focus in the short term on cataloging its inventory of vessels; if funding is increased, the Pentagon should emphasize a long-term, comprehensive strategy. Regardless, the assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering should have “defined” control over future programs.
In a response with the report, Kevin Meiners, deputy undersecretary of defense, concurred with GAO’s recommendations, although he added that he wished the agency had provided a “more balanced perspective on the life-saving value” of the vessels.