The Rise of the Islamic State Could Mean More Drones

An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Hurlburt Field, Fla, on May 3, 2014.

U.S. Air Force photo illustration/Staff Sgt. John Bainter

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An MQ-9 Reaper sits on the flight line at Hurlburt Field, Fla, on May 3, 2014.

The recent trend in less spending for drones just hit a big bump in the wake of the threat of Islamic fighters in Iraq and Syria. By Patrick Tucker

One of the effects of the rise of the Islamic State, in addition to putting U.S. troops back in Iraq, may be a reversal in the military’s shrinking drone budget.

Speaking at Intelligence and National Security Summit on Friday, Defense Department Undersecretary Michael Vickers said the rise of the Islamic State “has exposed, along with some of the instability in North Africa, shortfalls that we believe we now have in some capacity areas” — specifically, drone flights, or what the military calls intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“We thought we could reduce the rate of growth for our fleet — some — in the years ahead and now we’re really, really looking at that,” he said. “We’ll probably wind up with a different ISR mix after the budget cycle than we would have a year ago because of the rise of ISIL and other challenges.”

His statement signals a clear shift in the department’s thinking on unmanned aerial vehicles since 2013.

(Related: Every Country Will Have Armed Drones Within 10 Years)

Most of the flying robots made famous by the Iraq and Afghanistan years began to fall out of the administration’s favor as the president and the military turned their eyes toward Asia.  The Predator drone, for instance, is a machine that’s useful against insurgent groups in the rocky hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan or the fields of Iraq, but it doesn’t offer much by way intelligence collection or fighting capability against an enemy like China.

The Defense Department FY 2015 budget calls for spending $2.4 billion on drones, a slight increase from the year before but a big drop from 2013, when the budget allocated $5.7 billion for unmanned aerial vehicles. Those numbers reflect only some of the military cutback in drones as part of the scheduled U.S. draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan. If China is the future, the Predator, it was believed, was the past.

In the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon announced a 15 percent reduction to its fleet of Predators and Reapers. Not only was the Defense Department relying on smaller robots, but they were going to fly them less often as well decreasing the number of orbits, or patrols, considerably, from 65 to 55 Air Force drones flying 24 / 7.

Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security who has written on this topic previously, called the reduction a “classic example of the ‘next war-itis’ that [former Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates warned about, sacrificing capabilities needed for today’s threats to pay for potential future threats.”

The Army today flies 2,500 reconnaissance missions a month across the world. Many are manned but many are not. As more soldiers arrive in Iraq to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces hold the Mosul Dam, and keep the Islamic State out of Baghdad, it’s reasonable to expect the number of those missions to increase. Future threats have a funny way of showing up ahead of time.

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