GAO Report Criticizes Joint Services Interoperability of Unmanned Systems


Washington DC, December 13, 2005 – Despite the impressive success achieved by unmanned aerial systems (UAS) during recent conflicts in the Middle East, particularly in identifying time-critical targets and striking them by manned and unmanned aerial platforms, UAS support for joint forces operations is limited due to interoperability issues, bandwidth availability, equipment availability and bad-weather operability.

According a Government Accounting Office (GAO) report released today (December 13, 2005), Interoperability between systems and between different services is one of the biggest issues. While Department Of Defense (DOD) guidance requires interoperability, detailed standards for such interoperability have not been developed; relying on general standards, the services developed differing systems which had to use technical patches to permit interconnection at a much slower data flow, potentially hampering time-critical targeting.

Another issue is the interchangeability of sensors and platforms. Again, lack of payload commonality standard causes availability issues and delay, if compatible unmanned aircraft and payloads are not available. Since US forces develop, procure and operate UAS as service specific programs, they are insufficiently attentive to joint needs.

Lack of electromagnetic spectrum is another limitation – UAS require extensive bandwidth resources for control uplink and imagery downlink. Lack of standards causes excessive redundancy in the use of bandwidth resources. While the latest systems are adapting common datalink systems, other systems cannot change to avoid congestion and consequently some missions have been delayed, potentially undermining time-critical targeting.

Weather is a critical factor for UAS operations. Unmanned aircraft are more likely to be grounded in inclement weather than manned aircraft, yet, despite being an essential element in time-critical systems, all-weather capabilities were not specified with most systems.

Thus, while continuing to invest in UAS, DOD has incomplete performance information on joint operations on which to base acquisition or modification decisions. Only in May 2005, the U.S. Strategic Command began developing joint performance measures. GAO concludes: “Until DOD adopts and enforces interoperability and other standards, these challenges will likely remain and become more widespread as new UAS are developed and fielded.”