Military Personnel:

Actions Needed to Better Position the Navy and the Marine Corps to Support Expanding Unmanned Systems Operations

GAO-18-162: Published: Feb 6, 2018. Publicly Released: Feb 6, 2018.

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What GAO Found

The Navy and the Marine Corps are rapidly growing their portfolios of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and unmanned maritime systems and have opted to use military personnel as operators without evaluating alternatives, such as federal civilian employees and private sector contractors. Service officials stated that civilians or contractors are not viable alternatives and policies are unclear about when and how to use them. However, a June 2016 Department of Defense-commissioned study found that alternative staffing strategies could meet the UAS mission more cost-effectively. Military personnel may be the most appropriate option for unmanned systems, but without clarifying policies to identify circumstances in which civilians and contractors may serve in operational roles, the services could continue to make workforce decisions that do not consider all available resources.

The Navy and the Marine Corps have sufficient personnel requirements or efforts underway to develop personnel requirements for seven unmanned systems that GAO reviewed (see fig.), but requirements for one system (i.e., the RQ-21 Blackjack UAS) have not been updated. That system's requirements have not been updated because service entities disagree about whether they are sufficient. Since 2015, units have deployed with about two to three times the personnel that headquarters and command officials expected they would need. Marine Corps officials stated that the Blackjack's personnel requirements were based on an outdated concept of operations and are insufficient for supporting workloads. Without updating the personnel requirements for the Blackjack UAS, the services will lack current information about the number of personnel needed.

Navy and Marine Corps Personnel Requirements Status for Selected Unmanned Systems

Navy and Marine Corps Personnel Requirements Status for Selected Unmanned Systems

The Department of the Navy has taken positive steps but has not fully evaluated and updated aviation policies that affect personnel requirements for certain UAS and lacks clear goals for informing future requirements for all of its UASs. GAO found that the policies do not fully account for differences between UASs of varying sizes and capabilities. These policies require, for example, that the Blackjack UAS be held to the same maintenance standards designed for larger aircraft and UAS, which in turn affects personnel requirements. Until the Department of the Navy evaluates and updates such policies and clarifies related goals, the services will be hampered in developing and updating future requirements as unmanned system inventories grow and operations expand.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Department of the Navy has committed to rapidly grow its unmanned systems portfolio. It currently has at least 24 types of systems and has budgeted nearly $10 billion for their development and procurement for fiscal years 2018-2022. Personnel who launch, navigate, and recover the systems are integral to effective operations. Senate Report 114-255 included a provision for GAO to review the Navy's and the Marine Corps' strategies for unmanned system operators. GAO examined, among other things, the extent to which the Navy and the Marine Corps have (1) evaluated workforce alternatives (such as the use of civilians and contractors) for unmanned system operators and (2) developed and updated personnel requirements and related policies and goals for selected unmanned systems. GAO compared documentation on unmanned systems with DOD policies and conducted discussion groups with unmanned system operators.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making ten recommendations, including that the Navy and the Marine Corps clarify policies to identify circumstances in which civilians and contractors may serve in operational roles and apply the policies to future evaluations; update personnel requirements for one UAS; and evaluate and update policies and goals to inform future personnel requirements. DOD concurred with eight recommendations and partially concurred with two. As discussed in the report, GAO continues to believe that all ten are warranted.

For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Chief of Naval Operations should clarify workforce planning policies to identify circumstances in which federal civilian employees and private sector contractors may serve in operational roles and what the benefits and limitations are of using federal civilians and private sector contractors as alternative workforces. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Chief of Naval Operations should, after clarifying workforce planning policies, apply the revised policies to evaluate the use of alternative workforces (including federal civilian employees and private sector contractors) for future unmanned system operators. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Commandant of the Marine Corps should clarify workforce planning policies to identify circumstances in which federal civilian employees and private sector contractors may serve in operational roles and what the benefits and limitations are of using federal civilians and private sector contractors as alternative workforces. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Commandant of the Marine Corps should, after clarifying workforce planning policies, apply the revised policies to evaluate the use of alternative workforces (including federal civilian employees and private sector contractors) for future unmanned system operators. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Commander, Naval Air Systems Command, in coordination with the Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Combat Development and Integration, should update the Marine Corps personnel requirements associated with the RQ-21 Blackjack UAS based on the most current and enduring concept of operations and utilize the updated requirements in planning for UAS squadron personnel requirements. (Recommendation 5)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Commander, Naval Air Systems Command, should update the life cycle cost estimate for the RQ-21 Blackjack UAS to make adjustments as appropriate after updating the personnel requirements for the system. (Recommendation 6)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Warfare Systems (N9), in coordination with the Deputy Commandant for Aviation, should prioritize continued efforts to fully evaluate policies for operating and maintaining UAS of different sizes and capabilities, such as group 3 UAS--to include establishing completion time frames, determining whether reductions to personnel requirements could be accomplished, and identifying any associated cost savings and the benefits to the UAS squadrons' ability to complete missions--and update such policies as needed. (Recommendation 7)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Navy should clarify overarching goals for unmanned systems' personnel requirements, including related priority levels for resourcing purposes, and communicate them to requirements planners and budget decision makers. (Recommendation 8)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Chief of Naval Personnel and the Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs should assess civilian supply, demand, and wages in the commercial drone industry and use the results to inform retention approaches, including the use of special and incentive pays for UAS operators. (Recommendation 9)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Deputy Commandant for Aviation and the Deputy Commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs should examine the use of additional human capital flexibilities that could improve the career satisfaction and retention of experienced UAS operators and maximize their availability to squadrons. Such flexibilities could include authorizing available special and incentive pays; permitting UAS operators to extend their enlistments to serve longer within squadrons; ensuring the availability of career- and promotion-enhancing opportunities for professional military education; considering the use of a potential insignia device for operators; or extending UAS operator contract lengths. (Recommendation 10)

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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