The U.S. Air Force’s plan to pare down its drone fleet was fantastically unrealistic—and the branch’s leadership seems to be finally realizing this. Now, as Foxtrot Alpha predicted, the Air Force is asking to expand its drone capacity dramatically due to the the threat from international terrorism, the realities regarding the state of conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, as well as the dismal cultural and personnel situation within the drone force’s ranks.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, on Thursday, the Air Force has a $3 billion dollar proposal that aims to add 75 MQ-9 Reaper drones to the current fleet of 175 Reapers and 150 Predators. This will increase the number of drone squadrons from eight to 17.
To support this expansion, the Air Force will add around 2,500 to 3,500 new pilots and support staff to its current force. This is also needed to ease the pressure on the current drone force crew cadre, which has been chronically undermanned and neglected for years. Also, new bases overseas will be established to host the Air Force’s enhanced drone force.
The result is a massive expansion in the Air Force’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) capacity. In order to sustain such a expansion, key issues need to be finally addressed within the RPA force itself, and most of them are also included in the initiative. According to military officials, this includes:
· Approximately double the number of RPA flying squadrons.
· Create a new wing to normalize organizational and command and control structures relative to other weapon systems.
· Standardize the squadron, group and wing structure.
· Assign RPA units in new locations to potentially include overseas locations.
· Decrease the heavy burden of persistent in garrison combat operations by increasing RPA manning and associated resources by 2,500-3,500 Airmen.
· Define career tracks for officer and enlisted RPA operators and maintainers.
· Study the promotion and professional military education selection rates for RPA officers.
· Study the feasibility of a single specialty code for RPA maintenance personnel.
· Streamline processes to better enable Reserve Component forces to support the mission.
Furthermore, it may come as a huge relief to the Air Force’s current crop of drone pilots and sensor operators, who are worked to the bone as-is—more than three times more hours a year than fighter pilots, the LA Times reported.
The Air Force, and the Defense Department for that matter, seem to finally be coming to terms with the realities of ongoing operations around the globe, and the demand for more RPA capacity in those conflicts—not less.
In the past 50 years, the U.S. has largely participated in wars of choice, but in the future this most likely will not be the case. The fight against ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Northern Africa is a sign of things to come. Unmanned aircraft, especially those that can be armed, are incredibly well adapted at the counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency fight.
When it comes to striking targets of opportunity, where an F-16 needs to refuel almost every hour over the battle-zone, a Reaper can stay on target for dozens of hours without needing tanker support. This capability is also especially helpful for armed over-watch missions. When it comes to surveillance, drones can persist over an area of interest, doing all kinds of surveillance, some of it very exotic in nature, much longer than manned assets, all at much lower cost. The fact that no crew is onboard means that drones can penetrate deep into hostile territory without risking a crew or needing complex combat search and rescue forces on standby.
Although the Air Force would love to plan and arm for the next great high-intensity, near peer-state conflict, it cannot just deny the dire need of the lower-intensity conflicts the U.S. remains mired in today. Just because you want a conflict to end does not mean the other side will agree, and what grows in the vacuum left by retreating American forces has proven to be darker in nature than what came before.
It seems as if the Defense Department, and possibly the White House, is finally learning this lesson. This proposal is also a sign that the Air Force is finally going to work toward addressing the cultural issues related to RPA force.
Still, we will have to see if this multi-billion dollar request gets approved by Congress and if the pilot-driven, “white scarf” wearing Air Force brass— which has treated the RPA community like an unwanted step child in many ways in past—will actually follow through with it as advertised.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
Photos via USAF