DOD doesn’t know if Afghan drone program was worth $174 million in US taxpayers’ money, report says
By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 17, 2020
KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military does not know what it got from a five-year effort to train and equip Afghan forces with surveillance drones to help target Taliban fighters in combat, a watchdog agency has found.
The Defense Department spent at least $174 million between 2015 and 2019 to outfit the country’s security forces with fixed-wing ScanEagle remotely piloted aircraft that provide real-time video, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan said in a new report.
But major oversight failures leave DOD unable to judge the immediate and longer-term impacts of the investment, how well the program has performed or whether the Afghan security forces can sustain it, the report found.
Published Monday, the report also raised concerns about missing equipment and Afghan troops’ inability to independently analyze intelligence. The coalition was reluctant to provide intelligence training partly because some trainees might have ties to the insurgents, an unnamed U.S. military official told SIGAR last year, saying he feared that “the training is going straight to the Taliban.”
U.S. Forces-Afghanistan had “no indication” that training materials had been passed to the Taliban, an official said in a written response to the report.
The ScanEagle program began five years ago as part of an effort to boost the Afghan security forces’ intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities ahead of the drawdown of international troops. Without better capabilities before foreign forces left, the U.S.-led coalition said at the time, the Afghans would suffer heavier combat losses against the militants.
Since then, Naval Air Systems Command has awarded five contracts to Boeing-owned Insitu Inc. for ScanEagle aircraft, parts and training. But SIGAR found NAVAIR had failed to adhere to oversight and contract management requirements, and could not show it ever received about one-third of the reports Insitu was required to provide.
Those “gaps” in DOD records meant the U.S. had no crash data and didn’t know how many troops were trained to use the systems, the hours drones flew or what spare parts were bought, SIGAR found.
Afghan forces had about 60 aircraft as of December, a Pentagon report to Congress showed earlier this year. Coalition officials provided SIGAR examples of program successes, such as flights that identified two Taliban prisoner of war camps and locating some 900 enemy positions in one year.
But those anecdotes don’t replace formal assessments, monitoring and evaluation, SIGAR said, concluding that the coalition “does not specifically know what DOD’s $174 million investment has accomplished.”
Operating from seven hubs around the country and supporting operations and convoys, the Afghans conduct daily drone flights with minimal international support, USFOR-A said in its written response.
“It may not be to western standards, but the [Afghan army] are using the Scan Eagles,” USFOR-A’s Col. Thomas Spahr wrote.
SIGAR recommended several measures to improve oversight and better understand the ScanEagle program’s performance. It planned to reassess the situation in two months, it said.
Without improvements, DOD won’t know whether the contracts’ terms were satisfied and can’t properly plan ahead, SIGAR said, while the Afghan army “will continue to risk losing its critical, costly, ScanEagle assets.”
Instructor Cody Cavender helps set up the ScanEagle drone launcher outside a training center near the city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. Afghanistan's $174 million surveillance drone program has been plagued by issues, including inadequate training and missing equipment, a government watchdog agency said in a new report.
PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN/STARS AND STRIPES