Saturday March 30, 2019
By Paul D. Shinkman
INDIAN SPRINGS, NV - NOVEMBER 17: An MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) flies by during a training mission at Creech Air Force Base on November 17, 2015 in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Pentagon has plans to expand combat air patrols flights by remotely piloted aircraft by as much as 50 percent over the next few years to meet an increased need for surveillance, reconnaissance and lethal airstrikes in more areas around the world. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
The secretive and lethal technology that has defined U.S.
counterterror operations for the last decade – and remains the subject
of global controversy – appears to be diminishing in importance as
America prepares for the next era of combat.
documents show the military plans to invest next year in the lowest
number of new drones in more than a decade. Though the complexity of
Defense Department budgets makes it difficult to isolate a single reason
for the shift, budget analysts agree the Trump administration's stated
intention of withdrawing from costly and deadly Middle East wars and
instead focus on a resurging China and Russia is driving a focus on
other technologies.Since it was first employed on an industrial
scale in Afghanistan, drone technology has evolved, become more lethal
and expanded to conflict zones in Iraq and Syria, Libya, Yemen and
across sub-Saharan Africa from Somalia to Nigeria. Their ability to
exceed prior limits imposed on manned aircraft and to kill America's
enemies without putting its warfighters in harm's way has proven
irresistible to U.S. presidents since George W. Bush, and a tempting way
to obscure involvement in foreign conflict.
Yet each of the major
drone programs listed in the latest budget proposal the Pentagon
compiled calls for purchasing fewer aircraft compared to at least the
previous two years, including the MQ-1 Predator that was the original
workhorse for conflict zones in the global war on terror, the larger and
faster MQ-9 Reaper that will replace it, and the highly sophisticated –
and singularly expensive – RQ-4 Global Hawk that represents part of the
future of unmanned warfare.
The proposed budget provides insights into the priorities and plans
of top decision makers, though it doesn't necessarily reflect what
Congress will authorize. And indeed many elements of the Trump
administration's latest proposal are likely dead on arrival at Capitol
Hill. However, the extent to which the Pentagon wants to invest in
drones is clearly tied to the kinds of wars it expects it will fight in
the near future, experts say.
"Procurement of unmanned systems is
an excellent litmus test, because these systems have been integral to
operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere over the last 20 years,"
Travis Sharp, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary
The decline in new drone purchases has multiple
causes, though the drop is driven at least in part by the Trump
administration's stated intention of pulling out of Afghanistan,
limiting its presence in Iraq and Syria, and diverting more attention to
preparing for potential conflict with its superpower rivals as
envisioned in the most recent National Defense Strategy. War on that scale and against adversaries with comparable technology would require other kinds of weapons, budget experts say.
big emphasis now is on great power competition, and this is dominating
most of the conversations in DOD," says Karl Kaltenthaler, director of
security studies at the University of Akron, who has documented the
evolution of the U.S. military's reliance on drones. "There is only so
much of a budget pie to go around, and this may be part of it: We need
to shift to more strategic weapons platforms, things that are going to
be more useful in great power competition."
A spokesman in the office of the secretary of Defense
referred questions about the proposed reduction in drone purchase to the
Air Force. A spokeswoman for the Air Force did not respond to multiple
requests for comment in time for this report.
Despite the budget
projections, present circumstances mean the demand for drones remains
high. Military commanders operating across the globe, from the Pacific
to the Middle East to Europe to the Caribbean, say they need more of the
surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering capabilities
that drones offer.
In some instances, a reduction in planning
drone purchases is not a surprise. The Air Force announced in 2017 its
plans to retire the MQ-1 Predator drone – the first platform that the
military armed and employed for extended operations on a major
battlefield. That decision leaves the Army as the only service to field
its version of the Predator and likely explains why the military only
plans to buy six versus 10 of the unmanned aircraft in fiscal 2019 and
20 of them the year before.
Other drones in which the military is
investing heavily for the future, such as the Navy's MQ -4 Triton or the
Air Force's RQ-4 Global Hawk, cost more than half a billion dollars
each, which amid tightening budgets is perhaps why the services have
requested buying only two this year, compared to three in each of the
last two years.
Yet even Reapers, which experts consider the most
emblematic of military drones used today, face a reduction in
acquisitions compared to recent years. Known formally as the MQ-9, it is
much bigger than the Predator, can carry 15 times more ordnance, flies
three times faster and can remain in the air significantly longer.
latest numbers in drone purchases mirror America's shifting reliance on
unmanned aircraft as a way to support and magnify the effect of foreign
deployed troops. An analysis of prior defense budgets shows the
military purchased four Reapers in 2002. In 2007, once the military had
started fielding the aircraft in foreign warzones, Pentagon budgeteers
started steadily growing the fleet with a jump to buying 12 that year,
up from two of the drones the year before. That trend that continued
through the next decade amid surges in the number of troops in Iraq to a
peak of buying 48 new aircraft in both 2011 and 2012 – matching the
height of U.S. troop deployments to Afghanistan at the time. The
rationale for new purchases is not limited merely to expanding the
number of drones flying at any given moment to match troop increases:
The more drones employed to a warzone also increase the likelihood of
one being damaged or shot down, requiring replacements.
new Reaper acquisitions had halved and have largely continued a downward
trend since then. Fiscal 2019 was a particular exception to the trend
in Reaper purchases, jumping to 24 from 16 the previous year as the Air
Force sought to bolster its overworked fleet under the Trump
administration's renewed investments in the armed forces.
planned reduction in the number of drones purchased does not necessarily
imply less investment in them. To buy 15 new Reapers as the Pentagon
plans, it proposes spending more than $1 billion – $38 million more per
aircraft compared to the total price for the 24 it purchased this fiscal
year. The extra cost is likely the product of new sensors, avionics and
other flight equipment that make it more effective on the battlefield
and less susceptible to bad weather, which has limited its missions in
the past. And as with most defense acquisition, purchasing fewer units
raises their individual cost.