The U.S Air Force wants to expand its drone program through an aggressive, $3 billion, five-year plan that would increase the number of aircraft, pilots and bases for the effort that has become central to the country’s battle against terrorism.
The new roadmap, unveiled Thursday by Air Combat Command, which oversees the drone program, would dramatically boost all aspects of the service’s unmanned fleet, according to The Los Angeles Times. The plan still needs to be approved by Congress.
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The new roadmap makes it clear that something must be done to shore up the drone effort, which has grown exponentially over the last decade and seen almost continuous operations – from surveillance to lethal strikes – worldwide.
“Our operators in the [remotely piloted aircraft] world are flying 900 to 1,100 flight hours per year. And compare that to the manned aircraft which average 200 to 300 flight hours per year. They're working 13 to 14 hour days and they work pretty much six days per week,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said last week during an event at the National Press Club in Washington.
She mentioned that the service might need to start relying on contractors to carry out drone missions unless steps were taken to recruit and retain pilots.
The wear and tear showing in the drone effort is not surprising given Obama’s reluctance to commit ground troops to hot spots in the Middle East. The administration believes the unmanned vehicles give it a technological advantage over terror networks, and the Pentagon often trumpets its drone airstrikes as officials confirm they have killed extremist leaders in places like Afghanistan or Yemen.
Drones are by no means perfect. A recent report by The Intercept claimed that nearly 90 percent of people killed in recent drone strikes in Afghanistan "were not the intended targets" of the attacks. And a handful of former drone operators are now saying that the weapon is creating new terrorist recruits every day as more innocent people are killed.
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The Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) estimates the Pentagon now operates roughly 7,000 drones, compared to less than 50 a decade ago. The organization notes the president’s fiscal 2016 budget included $2.9 billion for drone research, development and procurement, though there likely is additional classified spending as well.
Here’s how the Air Force wants to spend the $3 billion:
* Add 75 more Reapers to the existing fleet of 175 Reapers and 150 Predators. The General Atomics-produced Reapers cost around $13 million each, so the price tag for the expansion would come in at around $975 million.
* Potentially more than double the number of flying squadrons from eight to as many as 17. That would mean around 3,500 new pilots, sensor specialists and other personnel.
* Another $1.5 billion would go toward finding a new operating base. Today, all drone missions are run out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Around 3,330 military and civilian personnel commute there every day because the base has no housing facilities.
To provide some relief at Creech and better provide for continuous operations, Pentagon officials are considering opening new drone bases in California, Arizona, Hawaii and Virginia, according to the Times.
The idea is in keeping with a pledge by James to find “approaches that are designed to address this grueling schedule that many of our airmen are maintaining.”
Defense officials are also weighing putting another operations center at Lakenheath, a Royal Air Force base in Suffolk, England, though that would require an agreement with the U.K.
Of course, the Pentagon being what it is, the sticker price for the Air Force’s new roadmap could mushroom dramatically once other costs, such as incentives, are factored in and the plan starts to become operational.