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U.S. military turns away from drones

US News
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.

New Pentagon 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 Assessments, says.

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.

"The 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.

The 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.

By 2015, 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.

And the 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.


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