31 May 2011
Think the U.S. military has a lot of drones now? Just you wait. The Pentagon has just released its 30-year plan for buying and developing warplanes. And in a development that should come as no surprise, the future the military anticipates for its Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps air fleets — together numbering more than 5,500 warplanes — is more robotic than ever.
The congressionally mandated Aircraft Procurement Plan 2012-2041 is, of course, filled with conjecture. Any number of factors — fiscal, strategic, industrial or technological — could change unexpectedly, sending ripples through the Pentagon’s carefully-laid plans, currently projected to cost around $25 billion per year.
But based on current tech trends (everything always gets more expensive), anticipated (that is to say, flat) budgets and projected threats (China and terrorists, as usual), the military believes it can make do for the next three decades with air fleets roughly the same size as today’s — with just one big exception. The robot air force will double in just the next nine years.
In every other category of warplane, the population is pretty much stable.
Bombers, including B-1s, B-2s, B-52s and the future “Long Range Strike” plane: just over 150 in all, from today straight through the 2030s.
Cargo planes such as the C-130, C-17 and C-5 should number around 850 for the next three decades.
The aerial refueling fleet of KC-130s, KC-135s, KC-10s and new KC-46s barely changes, losing just 10 airframes from today’s fleet of 550 planes.
Counting F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s of all stripes plus stealthy F-22s and F-35s, the fighter arsenal shrinks somewhat, dropping around 10 percent from today’s 3,300.
The only area of expansion is medium and large Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. “The number of platforms in this category — RQ-4 Global Hawk-class, MQ-9 Reaper, and MQ-1 Predator-class unmanned aircraft systems — will grow from approximately 340 in [Fiscal Year] 2012 to approximately 650 in FY 2021,” the report states.
The F-16–sized Reaper is the biggest driver of this boost, since the smaller Predator recently ceased production for the Air Force. The Army, Navy and Marines are big contributors, too, as all three have Reaper-style armed drones in the works.
The Army’s got a Reaper-esque drone called Gray Eagle. The Marines want a similar UAV as part of their “Group 4 Unmanned Air System” program. The Navy’s so-called Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Strike and Surveillance initiative aims to put a jet-powered killer drone onto carrier decks no later than 2018. Around the same time, the Air Force could begin buying its own jet-powered attack ‘bot to complement the prop-driven Reaper.
By the end of the current decade, the Air Force should have enough medium and large drones to maintain at least 65 round-the-clock “orbits,” compared to 48 today. Add UAVs from the other services, and you’re looking at 100 or so permanently on-station killer drones, watching and waiting to swoop down with precision-guided bombs and missiles.
That’s not all. Future orbits will see farther and with better fidelity than today’s do. “Vastly improved” new sensors such as the Air Force’s Gorgon Stare and new foliage-penetrating radars will mean each future drone does the same work that several ‘bots do today.
“The aviation plan’s emphasis on long-endurance, unmanned ISR assets — many with light-strike capabilities — is a direct reflection of recent operational experience,” the report explains. 2010 and 2011 were banner years for robotic warplanes. CIA and military drone strikes in Pakistan spiked, with at least 118 last year, compared to just 50 or so in all of 2009. Reapers continued their patrols over pirate-infested Somalia and along both U.S. land borders. The Global Hawk helped scan for survivors of earthquakes in Haiti and Japan. A secretive jet-powered medium UAV called the RQ-170 spied on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in the hours before Navy SEALs attacked.
The U.S. aerospace industry is scrambling to meet the Pentagon’s huge appetite for unmanned planes. In the last two years, no fewer than three new killer drones have begun flight testing. Boeing’s X-45C (pictured), Northrop’s X-47B and General Atomics’ Avenger are all vying for new Air Force and Navy contracts. Northrop and Boeing also recently unveiled new, high-flying, long-endurance spy ‘bots.
With growing demand and the supply to match, the future looks bright for military drones. And it could get even better, the report hints: “Procurement plans… are less specific after FY 2016 to allow flexibility to continue growth as required.”
In other words, the Pentagon could buy even more unmanned planes than its current, ambitious plans anticipate.