President Barack Obama today requested a healthy increase in the number of MQ-9 Reaper drones that the Pentagon will purchase next year, further reversing the brief trend in fewer drone purchases. The numbers show that the Reaper is becoming the military’s favorite weapon in its fight against ISIS. But some experts say that the modest bump won’t be enough to fix the military’s much bigger drone problem—a growing deficit of drone pilots.
The Reaper, as a machine, is very similar to the famous Predator drone, which the Air Force essentially stopped buying in fiscal 2015. Both the Predator and the Reaper are made by General Atomics and look a lot alike. The difference is a matter of size and, thus, carrying capacity.
The Reaper, with a wingspan of 66 feet and a length of 36 feet—compared to a 55 foot wingspan and a length of 28 feet for the Predator—can carry two 500-pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs (bombs), and as many as four Hellfire missiles. The Predator can carry two missiles and no bombs. Like the Predator, the Reaper carries a lot of electronic targeting equipment such as the Raytheon AN/DAS-1 multi-spectral targeting system and various other cameras. It also has a variety of radar packages that the Predator doesn’t.
The Pentagon will buy 29 Reapers in FY 2016 at a cost of $821 million, up from 24 in 2015 and 20 in 2014. They cost about $14 million apiece.
The 2014 drop reflected ambitions to move away from the Middle East, an actual decline in the number of high-value targets to pursue in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and build up forces in Asia. The emphasis in Asia was not on drones, which Chinese anti-air defenses could brush aside easily. A machine like the Reaper is most suitable for targeted strikes and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, in a place like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Pakistan.
Paul Scharre, fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says the current situation in the Middle East is in part a reflection of the shortsightedness of previous plans to curb drone purchases. The allure of flashier systems that the military could use in an utterly unlikely war against China got in the way of common sense, he argues.
“The Pentagon continues to look at investments through the flawed prism of a ‘most likely, most dangerous’ perspective when it comes to future contingencies. That is, they tend to look at conflicts against groups like ISIS as ‘most likely,’ but a major war against a sophisticated military as ‘most dangerous,’” Scharre told Defense One. “The president has clearly placed counterterrorism as his number one national security priority, but it isn’t the number one priority for the Pentagon. That needs to change. That doesn’t mean that the bulk of the Pentagon’s budget needs to be spent on counterterrorism. What it does mean is that it should be the number one priority for resources. Military capabilities that will track terrorists and protect American lives should not be where the Pentagon should be looking for cuts.”
Today’s increase would represent the most Reapers the military has bought since 2013, when it purchased 36. They’re slated to fly more often as well. The budget would allow the Pentagon increase the number of daily combat air patrols to 76, including 60 Air Force Reaper patrols. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review had recommend cutting the number of patrols down to 55, reflecting the drawdown in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Defense Department budget documents released Monday, the increased patrol number “normalizes the ISR capacity to better align with ongoing and enduring operations and tempo.”
In other words, the threat of ISIS forced a change in patrol numbers.
Speaking at an event in September, undersecretary of defense for intelligence Michael Vickers forecast today’s announcement, crediting ISIS with ruining the Pentagon’s drone-cutting plans. “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…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 ISIS and other challenges.”
But will a few extra drones be enough to help Kurdish, Iraqi and moderate Syrian opposition forces to defeat ISIS? Scharre expressed skepticism. The problem with the military’s drone capabilities isn’t a lack of equipment but a lack of manpower.
“Increasing medium-altitude ISR is the right move, but this modest bump still won’t come close to meeting demand. The main limitation is personnel, not platforms. In order to address the widening gap between supply and demand, the Department of Defense will have to take steps to alleviate its personnel problems,” says Scharre.
The Air Force has taken a few steps to address the problem. In January, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced a big jump in incentive pay, from $650 per month to $1,500 per month, in order to make the job of drone piloting and image analysis more appealing. But it remains a tough job, often requiring pilots to work more than 14 hours a day. It’s also a very specialized skill. Upward mobility for drone operators within the military is extremely limited. That’s not the case everywhere. The private sector could begin to siphon trained pilots away from the military as early as this year, especially if the FAA passes a law mandating that commercial drone pilots have licenses, which is what many expect to happen.
Scharre outlined three steps to fix the military’s drone pilot gap: begin training enlisted pilots to operate remotely piloted aircraft; field multi-aircraft control technology so one pilot can monitor multiple aircraft while in transit; and leverage automated intelligence processing tools to reduce the analysis burden.
On the second point, research is well underway. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, recently called for ideas related to a project called Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment,” or CODE. It seeks to build technology to allow gangs of semiautonomous aircraft to “collaborate to find, track, identify and engage targets,” so that one pilot could operate several drones.
The military is also building up machine learning and big data processing capabilities so that software can do more image recognition.