UAV proponents live in a magical world in which the UAV will blithely fly through enemy airspace undetected and unhindered and, even better, will cost nothing to build. ComNavOps, of course, has pointed out the fallacy behind those fantasies. Let’s face it, if you want F-35 type performance you’re going to pay F-35 type prices whether it’s manned or unmanned. The incremental cost to include a pilot in an aircraft is relatively small and is offset by the greater instrumentation and communications needed and by the land based pilot which is still required. In fact, the land based pilot and his control station and communications requirements actually increase the cost of a UAV over a manned equivalent.
Let’s take a look at some of the cost figures for the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton (BAMS - Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) as reported by USNI News website (1).
FY16 $558 (LRIP 1), 3 aircraft plus control station and facility
FY17 $563 (LRIP 2), 3 aircraft plus control station and facility
Both LRIP (low rate initial production) contracts include 3 aircraft plus 1 control station and facility. That’s eyewatering even by F-35 standards at nearly $190M per aircraft. While that’s not just the actual construction cost of the aircraft, it’s still a valid per-aircraft cost figure because the aircraft can’t fly without the control station and facility.
Before anyone brings up full rate production economy of scale, there won't be any. The total production run is only planned to be around 60 or so.
UAVs are simply not the low cost item that proponents wish them to be!
(1)USNI News website, “NAVAIR To Begin Negotiating MQ-4C Triton LRIP 2 Contract and Advance Procurement”, Megan Eckstein,