As war winds down, a shakeup lays ahead for the UAV fleet

As the U.S. winds down in Afghanistan, some unmanned aircraft will face sunset while others will endure in the future force, according to a top DOD official.

With the United States out of Iraq and the U.S. military drawing down in Afghanistan, much is changing across the Defense Department. That includes one area of defense technology that came of age during the wars in Southwest Asia: unmanned aerial vehicles.

As the U.S. pulls out, what will happen to all these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that came to play a critical part in the conflict?

DOD’s fleet is expected to shrink along with the rest of the wartime military. Some UAV programs will be shuttered along with the forward-operating bases and other combat-zone operations. Others will continue development and potentially serve in future roles and incarnations.

They all pose a “managerial issue,” according to a top DOD official.

“There will be things that we built up for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are not worth keeping in the force structure, because they’ll be outdated or they’re not suited to more contested air environments,” Ashton Carter, deputy defense secretary, said May 30 at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Afghanistan is not a contested air environment; you can fly around as much as you want. That won’t be the case everywhere in the world.”

Some UAV programs were developed and deployed quickly, with less-than-perfect features and capabilities. Those will likely face sunset. Others, like the Reaper and the Liberty turbo-prop fleet, will be part of the enduring force structure, Carter said.

But for the UAVs that will live on, DOD must determine how to make them work in the future military. That includes figuring out how to man, train and equip the UAVs of tomorrow.

“That’s an example of the transition [that we face], and it has the man-unmanned transition aspect to that also. So there are a lot of difficult adjustments going on here at the same time,” Carter said.