Time for the Pentagon to Overhaul Drone Management, New Report Says

An MQ-1 Predator sits on the flight line. The predator started as an RQ-1 in the late 1990s providing reconnaissance until the early 2000s when it was equipped with two Hellfire missiles.

Senior Airman Christian Clausen/U.S. Air Force

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An MQ-1 Predator sits on the flight line. The predator started as an RQ-1 in the late 1990s providing reconnaissance until the early 2000s when it was equipped with two Hellfire missiles.

As the Pentagon writes a long-term drone plan, the former head of Air Force intelligence has some suggestions.

The U.S. military needs to overhaul the way it buys and manages its larger drones, according to a new report from a retired general who used to oversee Air Force intelligence.

The push comes as the Pentagon puts the finishing touches on a new roadmap for unmanned systems, a plan that is expected to guide the military for the next 25 years.

“We have to treat the remotely piloted aircraft enterprise in a much, much more efficient and effective fashion than we have in the past,” said David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who is now the dean of the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute think tank.

Deptula — who retired in 2010 as the Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — is also pushing to put one office in charge of all of the military’s drones that fly at medium and high altitudes with manned aircraft. In uniform and since his retirement Deptula has pushed for Pentagon leaders and Congress to name the Air Force the executive agent for unmanned aircraft.

Executive agents are appointed by the Secretary of Defense or the deputy to oversee support for operational missions or other designated activities that span two or more services.

Appointing one for medium- and high-altitude drones is a recommendation that was floated by Deptula and the rest of the Air Force — then shot down — a decade ago, when the U.S. military’s fleets of unmanned vehicles were still in their relative nascence. At the time, Army and Navy leaders saw it as a power grab by the Air Force.

“Perhaps the department has matured to the point that they would entertain this, that there is a motivation to try to get the most out of these systems, to increase our warfighting capacity while promoting service interdependency and the wisest use of tax dollars,” Deptula said Tuesday.

The Air Force has three major medium- and high-altitude drones, which the service calls remotely piloted aircraft. They are the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk. The Army flies the Grey Eagle, a version of the Predator, while the Navy has the Triton, a version of Global Hawk, and Fire Scout helicopter.

That’s inefficient, Deptula said. The Pentagon should establish an executive agency to “compel unified action” across the services to reduce duplicative acquisition, coordinate research and development, increase interoperability, and reduce maintenance costs.

Related: Should One US Service Rule the Military’s Drones?

Two years ago, Gen. Mark Welsh, then-Air Force chief of staff, said “the debate was contentious when we had it” and probably still would be. “For that reason alone, I don’t think it’s necessary.”

And that hasn’t changed. An Air Force spokeswoman said several of the report’s organizational recommendations would be beneficial, but creating an executive agent to oversee all the Pentagon’s larger drones isn’t one of them.

“Given the services’ differences in RPA platforms and their utilization at the strategic and operational levels, such an executive organization is unlikely to create efficiencies or improve operational capability or employment,” said Erika Yepsen, a service spokeswoman.

The study also recommends new military drone technology in which the Pentagon should invest. The military should develop open-system platforms that can carry modular payloads and integrate the larger drones into a “combat cloud” that links them to other autonomous and manned platforms in battle.

Those are both things the U.S. military has been interested for years but has yet to fully pursue, thanks in large part to the fiscal constraints imposed by the Budget Control Act spending caps, Deptula said. Some of the technical capabilities already exist. At last year’s Association of the U.S. Army annual association trade show, Textron Systems showed off Synturion, the latest system to allow one operator to control multiple unmanned vehicles across multiple domains. But they’re not integrated into the military’s current procurement programs, Deptula said.  

Other experts say all this discussion of technological improvements and better management of large drones misses the point. The Pentagon should be thinking more comprehensively about the role of autonomy in the battlefield, said Peter Singer, a strategist at New America.

“The main issue for the U.S. military to decide is whether the future is to continue on the pathways of RPAs — large, relatively expensive systems that seek to replace, almost directly, some manned system’s role, with the man in the middle in some way — or is it one where we use different designs in different ways, such as via swarms of autonomous and even cheap, disposable drones,” he said. “To make a parallel to 100 years back: Is the future just more ‘horseless carriages’ or the Blitzkrieg that combined tanks, planes, and the radio?”

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