28 January 2010
Pentagon Master Plan: Super-Size My Drone Fleet
By Nathan Hodge
The U.S. military already has plans in the works to grow its fleet of Predators and Reapers, the long-loitering, armed surveillance drones that have become a defining feature of the air war over Central Asia and the Middle East. Now, according to a draft version of the Pentagon’s new master strategy plan, the military wants to dramatically up the number of “orbits,” or air patrols, of the unmanned aircraft.
Courtesy of Inside Defense (subscription only), we’ve taken an early look at a “pre-decisional” copy of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, due for release on Monday. According to that draft, the Department of Defense is “is on track” to field and sustain 50 drone orbits by Fiscal Year 2013. What’s more, the Pentagon “will continue to expand the force to at least 65 orbits by FY 15.”
Just to give a sense of how significant this is, some context. On a visit to an “undisclosed location” in Southwest Asia last year, Noah got the inside scoop on current Predator and Reaper operations: The Air Force, he reported, has a total of 39 orbits in the Central Command region. And those orbits include the CIA’s controversial drone operations over Pakistan, which are technically compartmentalized from — but overlap with — the military’s efforts in Afghanistan. (“There are 39 orbits, that’s it. No wink, wink,” a military officer memorably told Noah.)
The Fiscal Year 2010 budget calls for funding to field and sustain a 50-drone orbit by 2013. But the addition of another 15 orbits by 2015 won’t be the end of it. According to the draft QDR, the Pentagon is also “exploring ways to enhance the effectiveness of its fleet of ISR aircraft by developing innovative sensor technologies, support infrastructures and operating concepts.”
A separate portion of the draft QDR looks at another future role for drones: As long-range bombers. In a passage devoted to expanding long-range strike options, the document notes that the Navy’s effort to develop a carrier-capable drone “offers the potential to greatly increase the range of strike aircraft operating from the Navy’s carrier fleet.”
As part of an earlier scrub of the defense budget,
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates canceled a new Air
Force stealth bomber that was originally scheduled to
enter service in 2018. But as we’ve
noted here before, an Air Force research professor
has floated the idea of replacing strategic bombers
with a future drone, possibly based on the Navy’s
X-47B, a drone the Navy began funding a few years ago.