Costly overlap in the branches of the military

Walter Pincus / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON —

Like young schoolchildren wildly chasing a soccer ball, each military service pursues its own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) collection platforms and the analytical systems required to understand the information they’ve gathered.

Forget jointness among the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, which all see their futures in their own systems.

“In practice, the four services have been intent on acquiring different UAS (unmanned aerial systems) that meet their perceived unique requirements,” said a Congressional Research Service report released last week. “The result has been excessive costs required for different systems with duplicative or overlapping capabilities.”

While some efforts at centralization have been made, the CRS found “there is a strong likelihood that separate needs and concerns that affect the current systems will not disappear even if one official has a new and expansive charter.”

These new systems provide U.S. policymakers with endless information about foreign countries, from their military capabilities to their political leadership. They also give the U.S. military, from regional commanders to squad leaders on the ground, tactical data about enemies across the seas or around the corner.

As demonstrated last week in Boston, ISR can be adapted to provide information that aids counterterrorism operations at home and abroad.

But as the CRS report notes, “the difficulties involved in linking disparate systems together to serve a variety of consumers require different acquisition approaches.”

Sampling the ISR-related contract proposals and awards by the Army, Navy and Air Force so far this month gives you a sense of the problem.

• On April 2, the Army announced it was seeking contractors to develop concept papers for technologies that “support the development of a mobile soldier sensor.” It was to be “cargo pocket sized” and support “both indoor and outdoor ISR missions.”

• On April 4, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency required a contractor to supply Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft in garrison and at deployed locations with “all personnel, supervision, and related items” for threat warning, communications surveillance and situation awareness.

• On April 4, the Air Force was forced to extend contracted services supporting South Korea- and California-based, unmanned Global Hawk and manned T-38 and U-2 aircraft carrying out reconnaissance and intelligence missions. One reason for the contract extension, through the end of fiscal 2013, was because of the Air Force-wide civilian hiring freeze caused by the sequester of funds.

• On April 11, the Naval Special Warfare Group’s training detachment was seeking a contractor who would provide 20 hours of ISR aircraft that would supply full-motion video, close air support and call-for-fire training, plus intelligence and fire support officers on the ground.

• On April 15, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command sought potential contractors who could provide ground support elements for preflight, in-flight and post-flight data for the unmanned Navy version of the long-range Global Hawk, as well as the manned P-3C and P-8 aircraft, all used in anti-submarine warfare and intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions.

You see the problem, and it will only continue. With another $2.5 billion in the fiscal 2014 Pentagon budget for purchase of unmanned aerial vehicles, they will become “even more vital to the mission,” according to the Defense Department comptroller’s backup material.

That request is below the $4.1 billion in the fiscal 2011 budget, but a look at what is being sought continues to depend on the military service purchasing it and increased complexity of each aircraft and analytic system.

The Army next year is continuing development and integration of a universal ground control station and ground-based sense-and-avoid system for its Grey Eagle, a more modern Predator. It is also giving the aircraft a signals intelligence intercept capability. The Air Force wants to procure 12 more of its new Reaper unmanned aircraft (which already has signals intelligence capability) and 12 more ground stations. It also seeks $134 million to develop new radar technology and a new ground station for its Global Hawk. Meanwhile, the Navy wants $375 million for engineering and development of a future version of its Global Hawk. The Marines are looking for $66.7 million to purchase 25 RQ-21, a small tactical unmanned air vehicle developed with the Navy but now considered a Marine program that flies off Navy ships. The Marines also are seeking additional funds for “contractor logistics support for the RQ-21.”

Returning to the schoolyard soccer game: As those children grow older, they begin to work together, each knowing his or her role in a team effort. When it comes to the U.S. military, what happens may be described as a team effort, but each service comes to the field with its own uniform and primarily with its own weapons.