Pentagon to Industry: Build Drones Cheaper, Faster; Cost Per Unit Matters

February 20, 2024 7:17 PM - Updated: February 21, 2024 7:31 AM
Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Bill LaPlante and Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker hold a press briefing in the Pentagon Press Briefing Room at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Sept. 9, 2022. DoD Photo

The Pentagon’s chief buyer said Thursday it makes little sense to fire a million-dollar round to shoot down a target costing a fifth of that amount, so contractors must get a better handle on their own costs before sending new systems over to the Defense Department.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante asked rhetorically which “cost curve would you rather be on,” a high-cost interceptor or low-cost attack drone. In answer to a question, he added that the Department of Defense has 40 programs ready to receive funding to intercept small drones, which have proven highly effective in the Russo-Ukraine war.

Although it seems obvious that costs should drop as more are built, the per-unit cost for many systems are not dropping enough to continue putting money toward their development, he said. Complicating matters, as again seen in Ukraine and now in the Israel-Hamas war and the Houthis in Yemen targeting Red Sea shipping, new unmanned aerial systems are being fielded rapidly, accompanied by different tactical uses.

“We need counter UAS at scale. We need lots of them, whatever they are – kinetic or nonkinetic” LaPlante said, adding, “cost per unit matters.” Heidi Shyu, under secretary for research and engineering, said all the services are making significant progress on laser defenses, including the navy’s surface fleet – which is considered vulnerable to Chinese long-range antiship missiles and unmanned aerial systems.

In addition, she and LaPlante said the U.S. has given Kyiv advanced precision-kill weapon systems that are significantly cheaper than laser-guided missiles for downing drones and striking lightly armored vehicles.

The key lies in software advances. The way to get software improvements into warfighters’ hands more quickly is through modular open architecture.

“You can separate hardware and software,” Shyu said.

Doug Beck, director of the Defense Innovation Unit, added “we do need to do disruption in scale” to keep an adversary off-balance. “Focus, speed and scale” are essential, and that means taking capabilities that are already built and applying them for multiple new effects.

LaPlante added that to do that quickly, the Pentagon needs to have more flexibility handling appropriations. Using counterdrone efforts as an example, he said the budget the Pentagon is using now for those programs was essentially developed in 2021, before the effect of the Russian invasion was felt and UASs’ effectiveness had been proven on the battlefield. He and several committee members noted that members of the appropriations committees would look at that proposal skeptically.

He also called for more flexibility in contracting authority like that given for Ukraine.

“I’m really paying attention to getting [counterdrone systems] into production,” LaPlante said. He also said there must be a “shift in the conversation” in the private sector as well in the Pentagon. The question is the same: “Are you prepared for success?” For manufacturers that means having the workforce available and production capacity ready.

The risk equation is different for the government and private sectors, he said.

Beck added the phrase “taking risk” has different meaning in Silicon Valley, where repeated failures can be valuable lessons to future success and profits; but inside the Defense Department, it also means risk to mission, force and nation.

LaPlante said, “historically, we have not been funding at high rates of production” early on, but industry needs a “minimum sustainable rate” to meet its costs. “Otherwise, it’s not going to happen,” because production lines shut down without work orders. The examples he used were the rapid foreign sales delivery of F-35 Lightning II Strike Fighters to Finland, in which production was continuing, versus the loss of time when lines were restarted to manufacture F-16s and Harpoon antiship missiles to help Ukraine and rebuild U.S. stockpiles.

Looking at what can be drawn from the Australia-United Kingdom-United States [AUKUS] agreement, Shyu pointed to the current Trilateral South China Sea exercise and later ones this year as offering lessons to the allies “from the seafloor to the stratosphere” that can be applied against a Chinese threat.

In the near term, she cited progress made in the Pentagon’s Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve (RDER, pronounced “raider”) in prototyping and experimenting with multidomain command and control, enabling logistics in a contested environment, mine-detection sensors for unmanned subsurface vehicles and unmanned aerial systems vertical take-off and landing.

Shyu said these would be fielded by 2027.

She also noted the Navy’s standing up its second unmanned surface vessel division as an example of how quickly the services are moving from experimentation to deployment as part of the Pentagon’s Replicator initiative to Beijing’s security challenges.


John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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