WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department fielded unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at breakneck speed over the last decade, but its deployment of the trained manpower and communications infrastructure necessary to properly support expanded UAV operations has failed to keep pace, a U.S. government watchdog agency has found.

A systematic, department-wide approach to incorporating UAVs into the Pentagon’s force structure is needed, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report “Unmanned Aircraft Systems — Comprehensive Planning and a Results-Oriented Training Strategy Are Needed To Support Growing Inventories.”

The Pentagon’s UAV inventory grew from fewer than 50 in 2000 to more than 6,800 by the end of 2009, the GAO said in the March 26 report. Congress appropriated $6.1 billion for UAV procurement in 2010. The drones have effectively eliminated the risk to human lives of many intelligence and surveillance missions, and in some cases they are used to conduct air strikes. The majority of the larger and more capable UAVs, which require extensive operations and maintenance crews, are owned by the Army and Air Force.

Defense Department guidance recommends that acquisition programs be accompanied by life-cycle cost estimates that include manpower, facilities and other support infrastructure so that decision-makers can determine whether a program is affordable and achievable. In part because many UAVs were bought for technology demonstrations, the Army and Air Force have not fully developed strategies for matching personnel with current and projected UAV force levels, the report said.

For example, Army Shadow UAV platoons are often deployed with enough operators and maintenance personnel to support regular use of the aircraft for 12 hours a day with the ability to surge to 16 hours a day. However, these platoons have said they are often required to fly the craft 24 hours a day for extended periods in Iraq. The Army has a plan to meet current and projected requirements for UAV personnel by 2014, but at the time of the audit the service did not have details, the GAO said.

Training the pilots needed to fly large numbers of UAVs, whether in theater or remotely via satellite links, has been a challenge. To support the ever-growing numbers of fielded Predator surveillance craft and armed Reaper drones, the Air Force has recently resorted to pilots just out of undergraduate pilot training. In order to establish a long-term pipeline for UAV pilots, the service in 2009 began studying the use of pilots from the broader officer corps who have not completed pilot training. Many of the details for how the service will provide UAV pilots in the future have yet to be determined, the report said.

UAV pilots are often deployed to theater with incomplete training on their particular drone because current simulators are not up to date, the GAO said. For example, the Air Force’s Reaper simulator does not have a weapons release scenario even though these craft routinely carry missiles.

Moreover, pilots are limited in the time they are allowed to fly real UAVs in training because most craft do not meet U.S. airspace safety requirements, the report said.

Plans are also needed for the services to maintain their own UAVs in the future, the GAO said. Currently, contractors provide some 75 percent of the work force that maintains the Predator and Reaper aircraft. The Air Force has a goal to establish by 2012 its own maintenance training pipeline, which it says would reduce costs, but the service has not developed a service-wide plan with the number of individuals to be trained, specific training required and the resources necessary, the GAO said.

The specific number and types of facilities needed to handle current and projected UAV fleets also have not been determined, the GAO said. For the Air Force, this is due in part to uncertainty over the final number and location of UAV squadrons, the report said. The Army has not determined specific requirements for storage of the Shadow, its most prevalent UAV.

Meanwhile, the communi-cations infrastructure to support UAV operations, for the Air Force in particular, is less robust than it should be, the GAO said. While the Army and Marine Corps typically operate their UAV with line-of-sight communications links, the Air Force and Navy often operate drones over the horizon, which requires satellite links. Air Force doctrine calls for redundant command and control systems for high-value assets, but it has not established redundant satellite relay sites, the report said. Air Force officials told the GAO new high-capacity communications equipment is now being purchased that will allow the current equipment to be available for use at other locations, but these efforts are not expected to be complete until 2012 at the earliest.