Are High-Tech Sensors the Answer to the Pentagon’s Drone Demand?

An MQ-9 Reaper in Iraq waits out a sandstorm beneath a shelter in 2008.

Senior Airman Jason Epley/U.S. Air Force

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An MQ-9 Reaper in Iraq waits out a sandstorm beneath a shelter in 2008.

Battlefield commanders often argue that they need more eyes in the sky, but high-tech sensors could give the US military an edge in the future.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work has been championing a Pentagon project to offset the technology of enemies; much like the U.S. military did with the development of guided bombs, stealth and nuclear weapons over the past century. On Wednesday, Pentagon leaders said that the next offset, when it comes to drones, would likely come in the form of sensor payloads for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, rather than new platforms.

The demand for all types of ISR “remains very, very high and continues to outstrip our supply,” Work said.

The opinion is a reflection of recent history. As U.S. military operations in Afghanistan slowed, many of the drones that gather intelligence in the Middle East were expected to shift to other regions, like the Pacific, Africa and South America.

Instead, over the past eight months many drones have shifted not to these regions, but to Iraq and Syria where they are providing critical targeting data for U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State militants.

“We simply underestimated the continued demand,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said Tuesday at a conference sponsored by McAleese and Associates and Credit Suisse.

But unlike over the past decade—when the demand for more ISR led to spending billions of dollars on hundreds of Predators and Reapers and thousands of smaller, hand-held drones—new, high-tech bolt-on equipment for these machines could keep them relevant for decades to come.

“I believe the next offset will be as much or more about payloads as it is about platforms,” Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a speech at the same conference. “I would say we’re actually on a pretty good trajectory with platforms.”

The military has incrementally added cameras, weapons and other types of sensors to its drones over the past decade. Regular cameras evolved into high-definition cameras. Narrow-view cameras, which have been equated to looking through a soda straw, have now turned into wide-area sensors that could monitor large swaths of land.

The same is true of weapons. Early Predator drones were unarmed and only had a camera, but weapons were eventually added. Drones and manned aircraft also carry pods for eavesdropping enemy communications and jamming equipment.

High-tech sensors and targeting pods have made old Cold War-era aircraft, like the B-52 bomber, useful in counterinsurgency and conventional battle.

“We use B-52 sorties that are carrying sensor packages,” Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said during a briefing at the Pentagon last week.

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