Thursday, September 29, 2016

UAV Triton Costs

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.

MQ-4C Triton

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, 4-Jun-2015,


  1. Rather than waste money on BS, the USA needs to develop a cruise missile with a radar seeker like a HARM missile. Other nations will field these, which will find and destroy these expensive UAV control stations, causing expensive UAVs to crash too. In a modern war, you can't have a forward fixed site emitting for hours at a time.

    1. "can't have a forward fixed site emitting for hours at a time."

      The military would claim that a forward site need not be all that forward - that UAVs can be operated from CONUS. Of course, that assumes that the enemy allows our communications - a highly unlikely assumption.

      There is also the larger question of whether we can control UAVs at all in the face of electronic countermeasures, at any distance. To the best of my knowledge, we've never subjected our UAVs to this kind of testing.

  2. What in the name of Neptune's slippers makes the things so damned expensive????

    I don't see that anything on these puppies is new technology?? I'd love to see a cost breakdown for this. At this price I don't see how you get a good ROI. At all.

    1. Agree Jim Whall. I never understood why they were so expensive, I know some of the electronics and radar on board some of the Global Hawaks are expensive but it seems like a lot for an air-frame that isn't special, one regular engine, no RAM, etc....

    2. At a guess, speed.
      Similar sized Israeil UAV's cost 1/10th as much, but they are all prop driven, with much longer endurance, but much lower speeds.
      I think the Triton cruises at nearly mach 1, whereis the alternatives all dodle along at a few hundred kph...
      Why a UAV needs to be so quick in a strike roll, i dont know, I'm too much an amateur.
      As an aerial interceptor, it would need these speeds, and maybe more, but for surveillance, and strike...
      Very very expensive craft.

    3. Speed isn't an issue. The RQ-4 has a top speed under 400 MPH. The engine isn't really advanced being the same as the engine on the Citation X and ERJ-145 and sharing a common core with the engines on the C-130J. Nor is the airframe itself really all that advanced being an aluminum body with composite wings.

      Very very little of the cost of an RQ-4 can be attributed to the actual airframe. Most of the cost comes from overheads and profit taking.

    4. "At a guess, speed."

      Northrop Grumman's data sheet for the Triton lists the top speed as just a bit over 300 mph which is nowhere near Mach 1.

      Do your homework before you post, people!

    5. "Very very little of the cost of an RQ-4 can be attributed to the actual airframe."

      Do you have data to support that statement or are you just conjecturing? Conjecture is fine as long as it is not presented as fact. Either present some data or state that you are offering conjecture.

    6. Simply put, an aircraft that weighs and performs similarly to a manned aircraft will cost around the same as the manned equal.

    7. I still don't get it, Alt.

      The unit cost on these is still above what you'd pay for a larger Gulfstream. The range isn't the same, but its not bad either.

    8. CNO, the RQ-4 airframe is significantly simpler than many many much for complicated airf rames out there. Either of the two top of the line biz jets (G650/Global Express) have more complicated and expensive air frames and more complex and higher tech engines. Shrink the fuse of either, run at roughly half speed and they easily would match the RQ-4 in both payload and range. And both cost well under 1/2 what an RQ-4 costs. It's not like either of these planes are high volume either.

      So, that's is why I say that the cost cannot be attributed to the actual airframe. A commercial airframe of that complexity can be had for well under 40m fully outfitted.

    9. ats, your example is appealing and irrelevant.

      The appealing part is that it's perfectly logical.

      The irrelevant part is that we have example after example where trying to compare commercial products with military ones falls apart. Consider a commercial supertanker. It's the size of an aircraft carrier and has a relatively flat deck similar to a carrier and costs around $100M. So, we ought to be able to build an aircraft carrier for what, maybe 2-4 times that amount after we add in military equipment? No, the latest aircraft carrier costs $14 BILLION dollars and will likely wind up much more than that before it's done.

      We can come up with endless examples of such comparisons where the military versions cost many, many times what any reasonable commercial version does. Some of the cost increases are legitimate for military equipment that isn't needed on a commercial version (the reverse is true also - a military aircraft doesn't need the plush leather seats of a private commercial jet, for example, so the military version should be cheaper, in that regard) but most of the cost increases are utterly unexplainable. They simply are what they are. You can argue that the cost shouldn't be what it is and I'll agree but in the end the cost IS higher by a huge factor.

      So, regarding the Triton airframe costs,

      -you have no actual data to say what the cost is (nor do I)
      -the cost is likely hugely higher than either of us think
      -your argument is compelling and, with absolute certainty, wrong

    10. A commercial supertanker is significantly structurally different than an aircraft carrier. For one, a supertanker is primarily massive empty spaces where a carrier has large numbers of corridors and passage ways. Basic construction time to make a carrier is significantly longer because of that.

      A significant portion of the cost of the carrier is also in things like the power system, which simply doesn't exist on a supertanker. Not to mention, all the new systems specific to the Ford class included in that cost.

      This isn't the case with the comparison of the RQ-4 to something like a G650. Hell the G series has been converted by some countries into the exact same role as the RQ-4. From a basic airframe perspective, the G650 is actually more complex than the RQ-4.

      A better comparison for your argument would likely be the 737 and P-8 at ~100 mil and 172 mil flyaway costs. The P-8 has a sensor suite comparable to the RQ-4 and additional functionality in the it expendables capabilities.

  3. I think ( in this case anyway ) the "cheapness" ( with big inverted commas ) comes in terms of price per USEFUL flight hour.

    And what I mean by useful is really about time on station, as you need less sorties to achieve 7 day 24 hour coverage. And the transit of 2 out of 3 of those sorties simply isn't there with TRITON.

    For a long range sortie this really does account for the bulk of the flight ( in terms of say a U2 type mission ).

    I notice they are fitting 2 of the U2's main sensors on Triton this week btw.

    in the end it boils down to a lot more things done divided by miles covered = cheaper missions.

    Depends on the mission of course. I've just picked the U2 type because its topical and emphasises the benefit to the max. Although the same would be true for Maritime Patrol but to a slightly lesser extent.


    1. Your point is valid, to an extent. However, if the purchase price is prohibitive, it doesn't matter if the missions are free.

  4. You are pointing out a rather significant problem arising from the development of a UAV capability for the Military – its rather high developmental, production, and operational costs. The question for the Navy, at least in my opinion, should be does incurring those costs and developing the resulting aircraft enable the Navy to better perform its sea control / sea denial and other missions or dies it merely duplicate the efforts of the Air Force while providing no operation gain of strategic value to the Navy of the future. For the below reasons, I believe the Navy should opt out of the development of and UAV capability intended for strategic or tactical bombing missions and allow the Air Force to have the budget and responsibility for that effort.

    To the extent that the Navy believes the primary mission of the Aircraft Carrier is as a floating Air Base from which this Nation’s (Navy and Marine Corps) Fighter / Attack Aircraft can be employed to bomb targets in potential enemy nations, it is becoming more and more apparent that the continuing development of A2AD weapons systems is obsoleting that capability and thus diminishing the strategic value to the Navy of its Aircraft Carriers. It is one thing to send Carrier based aircraft on low risk bombing missions in essentially undefended Iraq or Afghanistan, it will be rather another to deploy Aircraft Carriers near a country with a substantial A2AD defense capability and one that defends its at risk target areas with a Russian S-300 or S-400 SAM system. Given the cost of Aircraft Carriers and their Fighter / Attack Aircraft, the risk reward ratio is far to high for this nation to continue deploying Aircraft Carriers with this mission in mind.

    Based on that premise, it is clear that for the Navy there is no rational need for it to invest in developing UAV’s to perform the role now carried out by aircraft such as the F-18.

    Aircraft Carriers and their carried aircraft were never intended nor designed to be used to conduct ongoing strategic level air warfare / aerial bombardments against defended land targets. Instead, as the capabilities and performance of carrier based aircraft improved (during the 1930’s) they replaced the guns of the battleship. Providing aircraft for sea control (by sinking the enemy fleet) was their primary mission along with conducting bombing “raids” against land targets. Providing air support and air coverage for amphibious landings also became a Carrier mission and later lighter (smaller) carriers carried aircraft that performed Anti-Submarine Warfare missions. The concept of strategic (atomic weapon) bombing from Carriers was proposed by the Navy Brass in its effort to insure the survival of its Carrier Force during the anti-Navy and anti-Marine Corps environment of the post-World War II / pre-Korean War era Truman Administration, especially when Louis Johnson was SecDef. That mission never actually materialized despite the plans / attempts to use the then A3D and later the A5J for that role. Instead, during the Eisenhower Administration the Navy obtained a key role in our MAD capability through development of the Polaris Missile Submarines – the SSBNs.

    As for attacking land targets, as noted above, UAV operations requiring an active interface with an Air Controller brings with it many risks if one is attempting to penetrate a defended airspace. Sooner or later we will develop the necessary Artificial Intelligence to enable a UAV to operate independently, however, the cost of developing that capability is going to be rather high. Strategically attacking land targets is an Air Force (not a Navy) Mission. Give the budget and responsibility for that effort to the Air Force, where it belongs.. The Navy needs to concentrate on its core missions – sea control and sea denial plus providing the necessary capability and support when conducting short term interventions employing Marines.

    1. Continued:

      In all probability significant sized Fleet warfare will be no more, but should the possibility of it ever arise -- perhaps from a future Chinese or Russian Fleet capability, possessing and deploying the needed number of SSN’s to eliminate an enemy fleet would be the far more practical, less risky, and successful approach. I had the rare opportunity for a Surface (1100) Officer to witness SSN performance and to see its operating capabilities. Between surface ships and SSN’s it is not a contest. The U.S. Navy does not require Air Group Aircraft flying from Aircraft Carriers to sink an enemy fleet should the occasion arise – SSNs will handle that problem.

      In a past era, the Navy decided it would not be practical to use modified CVA’s as Amphibious Ships, but that was when Carrier Airdales ran the Navy. We have substantial sunk costs invested in our CVA’s and need to reevaluate their mission, their use to the Fleet. Today, their only practical employment is to carry out missions such as bombings in Iraq and Somalia, to support intervening Marines, and perhaps to conduct an air raid against a (defense wise) less sophisticated country’s port facilities, military units, air bases, etc. as a form of Presidential ordered retaliation or punishment – as somewhat recently in Libya.

      The Navy does not require 11+ CVAs to carry out the above missions. It should disband four Carrier Air Groups, disband the Navy VF (Fighter) squadrons from that CAG and reassign those squadrons’ pilots, Chiefs, and men to newly formed VP and (if possible) VS Squadrons. If necessary, the Navy could extend the life of sufficient P-3s to provide aircraft for the newly formed VP squadrons.

      The four affected Carriers could be re-designated as Amphibious Ships and re-modeled to carry one or two Marine Corps VMFA Squadrons, the needed VMH Squadrons, and a Marine Expeditionary Group. These four Carriers would neither have a need for a VAW detachment nor for its Aegis system capabilities. Much of its other now unnecessary electronics could also be removed, its Air Intelligence and Photo Lab could be removed, the size of its CIC reduced, etc., etc. – all of which were needed to carry out the CVA mission once assigned to the ship. Its accompany escort ships would be responsible for its protection. The accompanying space needs reduction from the above and the accompanying Navy staff reductions should provide sufficient berthing space for the Marine Infantry Battalion and adequate empty lockers (storage space) for its equipment and ammunition.

      Each of the remaining Carriers should have at least one of its VF Squadrons replaced by a VS and HS capability – hopefully of extended range and / or extended loiter time.

      The Amphibious Carriers should be combined with current Amphibious ships and escorts into 3 or 4 forward based Task Groups. The remaining CVA’s carrying a robust ASW capability along with some VF-Squadrons should, along with its escorts, be based in or near areas of potential risk.

      Dropping out of the UAV business and utilizing four of its CVAs in this manner would allow the Navy to redirect its efforts to its sea control / sea denial mission and provide the Marines with a needed increase in their Amphibious Mission. It would also free up funding for the development and production of far more practical surface ships designed to carry out their Anti-Missile and Anti-Submarine Warfare missions – now sorely lacking. It would have no negative impact on the funding and development efforts needed to ensure that our SSN and SSBM forces remain top of the line. As importantly, it would provide a clear demarcation between the missions of the Navy and the Air Force and enable budgeted funds to be distributed accordingly – rather than have the services competing for funding directed towards a single aircraft type such as the UAV.

    2. Regarding carriers, within the context of the scenario/mission you've laid out, your reasoning is sound. However, I would offer the thought that anti-surface ship is not the main mission of an aircraft carrier. It's one mission but not the main mission. The seat of purpose is on the land so the main mission of the aircraft carrier is to strike or facilitate strikes against land. "Facilitate" is the key word.

      My view of the carrier's role, today, is to escort the land attack (TLAM) Burkes - ironically, the opposite of the carrier's original role of striking and being escorted! Of course, the Aegis Burkes/Ticos still provide AAW escort for the carrier but the carrier's job is to protect the TLAM shooters so that they can reach launch position.

      A related mission is to provide zones of local air superiority for Air Force bombers to traverse or for other operations (amphibious assault, for example) to occur.

      Of course, the carrier can conduct direct strikes against land with its air wing but in a peer war with 1000 mile A2/AD zones, that seems like a less likely mission.

      Thus, my assessment of the worth of carriers and the number needed is different from yours.

  5. The P-8 is running around 250mil each, that is your comparison very similar aircraft size/sensor suite, compared with a F35 similarities are little to none. A F-35 strike fighter is not a P-8 a Triton is not a strike fighter. Apples oranges all of that missions specs do not overlap.

    I have heard the Triton and Global Hawk more than once referred to as having sensors that are satellite level (i.e. very expensive). I don't know the actual breakdown but I would imagine sensors are a substantial portion of the product cost.

    I fully agree the whole concept of UAV in peer war is dependent on the viability of defending holding our huge network of communications, satellites. What level will we be able to hold that infrastructure? Will the Tritons be relegated to rear patrol Indian Ocean, Atlantic, East Pacific, relieving the P-8's to concentrate on a WPacific war? I think allot of our lower level UAV strike will be either operating like cruise missiles with very little to no in flight communication needed or if over the battlefield probably tagging with a manned command platform in com proximity. The idea of real time communication in peer war over contested areas is very circumspect in my opinion.

    The control facility brings allot of questions. Does every three craft need a separate control facility? Is that our EWcoast control facilities? Are those control facilities mobile or better how many are we planning on buying? Facility cost can vary so much by location size equipment it really confuses the pricing.

    1. "compared with a F35 similarities are little to none."

      I think you completely misunderstood the post. I was not comparing Triton to F-35. I was saying that for any given set of unmanned capabililties, you're going to pay the same for it as for an equivalent manned set. So, if you want F-35 capabilities you'll pay F-35 prices. If you want F-18 capabilities, you'll pay F-18 prices. If you want WWI Fokker Triplane capabilities, you'll pay Fokker Triplane prices. And so on.

  6. I would agree that UAVs are not the miracle that their advocates have promoted them to be and in some cases, more expensive than their manned counterparts due to the additional infrastructure.

    There are other drawbacks. They cannot at the moment do very high g maneuvers (important for air to air combat and for dodging incoming enemy missiles) for fear of losing their satellite link. That would be a huge drawback for deep strike behind enemy lines.

    They are also very prone to crashing, much more than manned aircraft. I wonder what the costs are once the lost rate is factored in, although I suppose one benefit is that the pilot won't be made a POW.

    There may also be drone pilot shortages, strangely enough:

    I wonder if the USN has a similar challenge.

    1. So many people misguidedly think we can send swarms of stealthy UAVs penetrating a thousand miles of enemy air space to conduct strikes. The problem is that an aircraft with stealth, a thousand-plus mile combat radius, a worthwhile payload, and a high degree of survivability is going to cost what a F-35/B-2 costs. There's going to be significant attrition, both from combat and comm/control failures, and at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars apiece we just can't afford to do that. So, the fantasy of swarms of deep striking UAVs is just that - a fantasy.

    2. The other problem as I've noted is that so far, all of the wars where drones have been used are against Islamic fundamentalist groups, which don't really have much that can shoot down a drone.

      Against a modern enemy with good AA defense and fighter aircraft, they can send their fighters. I presume that drones would be used most aggressively where the risk of a POW is highest, which is deep in enemy territory.

      Drones cannot easily do the 9+ G maneuvers without losing their data links.

      That makes them more vulnerable to being shot down if an enemy gets a missile lock, or worse, gets into dogfight range.

      It's not a miracle solution that people think it is. You still need the same team on the ground.

      The only drones that will be really cheap are the super small and light ones, but of course they cannot carry very heavy weapons and are good mostly for surveillance and intelligence gathering. That is an important function, but not quite the war winning Wunderwaffen many people have advocated drones to be.

  7. Another problem that might happen with drones being shot down - due to their higher loss rates, many land intact behind enemy lines.

    There have been claims that Iran and China have reversed engineered US drones:

    It's entirely possible that they have been, drones are not nearly as "high tech" as people make them sound.

  8. Off topic:

    Finally, if you want to read something else disturbing, the F-35 has been having engine troubles again:

    This seems like an ongoing issue and worse, if it came to a shooting war could be a big problem.

    @CNO, one more issue - did you read the August 2016 DOT&E report on the F-35? It's worth a read if you have the time (it's a 16 page report):

    Hint: It is not pretty.

    The gun causes the aircraft to yaw. There are software development problems. The F-35 appears to be less capable than predecessors for marking targets.

    Also, it looks like the engine has "high fuel burn rates". Remembering the Breguet range equation, that means that although this aircraft has a decent fuel fraction, the low L/D ratio and high fuel burn rates mean that the range will be likely very bad.


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