Pentagon unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have flown twice the flying hours of manned, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) planes flying missions comparable to those of the drones, per a new Congressional Budget Office analysis of three drones and six manned ISR aircraft.

The study, Usage Patterns and Costs of Unmanned Aerial Systems, compares the usage of the U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper and the now retired MQ-1 Predator by General Atomics, and the Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk by Northrop Grumman [NOC] to data for the U.S. Navy Poseidon P-8 maritime patrol aircraft by Boeing [BA], the U.S. Air Force Joint STARS by Northrop Grumman, the Air Force E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and RC-135 Rivet Joint by Boeing, the Air Force U-2 Dragon Lady by Lockheed Martin [LMT], and the Air Force RC-26B by Fairchild, now part of Elbit Systems [ESLT].

“Annually, UASs have flown about twice as many flying hours as manned ISR aircraft because they have flown longer sorties,” the CBO analysis said. “They have also been destroyed at a considerably higher rate than manned systems.”

While the three drones have had lower acquisition costs and recurring costs per flying hour than the manned aircraft, CBO suggested that both UAS and manned, ISR aircraft are needed.

UAS “are especially well-suited for long duration ISR missions and operations in particularly dangerous settings because there is no risk of personnel onboard being captured or killed,” CBO said. “By contrast, missions requiring rapid responses, such as air-to-air combat, may require an operator on board because of UAS’s communication lags. In addition, a manned aircraft might generate more valuable intelligence per flying hour because experts are on board the aircraft. Thus, manned aircraft may provide military value relative to UASs that justifies a cost premium, although advances in technology may reduce or eventually eliminate those differences in capability.”