Comparing the Cost-Effectiveness of Expendable Versus Reusable Small Air Vehicles

by Thomas Hamilton

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Research Question

  1. When using UAVs, what are the relative costs of using expendable systems versus reusable systems?

RAND Corporation researchers reviewed the comparative cost-effectiveness of reusable and expendable platforms for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The authors specifically analyzed costs to achieve fixed effectiveness. In particular, they examine the life-cycle costs of alternative small UAVs that would operate in defended airspace in support of other systems, such as strike aircraft, and either be expended after their mission or recovered via aircraft or on the ground. The findings show that, in many cases, current technology makes reusable platforms relatively inexpensive. This suggests that small, reusable UAVs may be attractive as decoys, jammers, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.

Key Findings

  • The reusable platform is favored by a substantial margin if the conflict requires more than a few sorties.
  • Land-based recovery is much less expensive than midair recovery.
  • The expendable platform is only a desirable solution if the U.S. Department of Defense can be certain that the system will not be used more than a few times over its lifetime, attrition will remain high for long periods of time, or if recovery costs will be quite high.


  • Reusable UAVs should be considered as possible alternatives to expendable UAVs for a range of roles, including as decoys, jammers, or ISR platforms.
  • Land-based recovery of UAVs should be considered an economically attractive alternative to midair recovery.

This research was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

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