(Air Force via Getty Images)
A handful of unarmed MQ-1 Predators are flying from a new base in Niamey, Niger. They’re part of the effort to help France tamp down civil war in Mali, but the deployment also says a lot about the future of the U.S. Air Force’s huge and still growing fleet of medium-sized unmanned aircraft.
On the one hand, the work in Mali shows that the signature weapon of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is outlasting that conflict. On the other, the detachment is a tiny fraction of the Predator/Reaper fleet — and just where are the rest of them going to go? It’s a question that has been buzzing around the Pentagon and across the Air Force.
Some 16 months ago, as the U.S. surge in Afghanistan was in full swing, the Air Force was ordered to get to 65 drone combat air patrols. Each CAP represents a UAV on station 24/7 and requires about four aircraft to make happen. Currently, the Air Force has 258 Predators and Reapers staffing 60 CAPs. There are almost 300 Reapers still on order, largely to replace the Predators.
Now the U.S. is drawing its forces down. For many conventional units, the end of war means a return home. F-16s will go back to Aviano or Eglin or Edwards. Infantry units will return to their homes at Fort Drum, Campbell or Bragg. But most of the Air Force’s midsize UAVs have no home bases. They’ve always been deployed.
Could the UAVs be stored in places like Creech, Cannon or Holloman Air Force bases in the U.S., where their pilots operate? That would be tough, experts say. U.S. airspace is mostly closed to large UAVs below 60,000 feet, and Predators and Reapers can’t get that high.
Might Reapers soon be found prowling over Colombia’s jungles or overflying riverine drug routes in Honduras? Or could they go to Pacific Command for the “Pacific Pivot”? Northern Command for Mexican operations? Africa Command? Some say the slow-moving, easily detectable UAVs will be of little use for post-Afghanistan missions. Some say many of the aircraft could even end up at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the land of misfit toys in the Arizona desert called the Boneyard.
Money is another problem. The operation of these CAPs have been funded almost entirely by the overseas contingency operations, the funding pot formerly known as the emergency supplemental. That spending is withering like a drying prune: $159 billion in 2011, $115 billion in 2012 and $88 billion planned for 2013.
And it’s not cheap to fly a Reaper. An hour of air time costs about $8,000, according to a 2012 audit by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Compare that to the $6,000-per-hour tab for an MC-12 Project Liberty, a twin-engine King Air plane flown by a pilot and a co-pilot with a technician and analyst in the back.
Col. Bill Tart, who heads the Air Force’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Capabilities Division, says the unmanned aircraft will find both funding and a home.
“If this asset comes out of CENTCOM,” Tart said, “I already have six more combatant commanders that want it.”
Drones are hardly the only ISR assets that have been largely monopolized by Central Command and the Afghan operation. Other combatant command chiefs are eagerly awaiting the drawdown’s “ISR dividend” — their chance to use a roster of U.S. spy planes: the MC-12s, RC-12s, Constant Hawks, even the P-3 variants. But the unmanned fleet is a special case. There are opportunities, but also obstacles — political, financial and technological — at every step.
The Predator and Reaper have done well in Afghanistan, where the U.S. rules the skies. Flying from crowded and strained airfields like Kandahar and Bagram, the Air Force fleet of MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers are each operated by two sets of controllers. The first crew, sitting in trailers right near the airfield, launches the aircraft via line-of-sight antennas. Then, once the unmanned plane is in flight, officers in cubicles back at Creech in Nevada or other bases take over the mission via a satellite link. One officer, the pilot, controls the flight, and the other controller operates “the ball” — running the sensors and aiming laser designator at targets.
But under the Pacific pivot ordered by the Obama administration in 2011, ISR gurus grapple with surveillance in places where the U.S. does not control the skies. The acronym du jour is A2/AD, for anti-access/area denial: the use of advanced weapons to keep U.S. aircraft and warships at bay.
Take North Korea.
“If we fly a Predator over their territory, they may see it as an act of war and they’ll take it down,” said Joe Detrani, a former envoy for talks with Pyongyang, and who oversaw intelligence collection over North Korea when he was at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
U.S. commanders are acutely aware of this.
“We are now shifting to a theater where there’s an adversary out there who’s going to have a vote on whether I have that staring eye over the battlefield 24/7/365,” Gen. Mike Hostage, who leads the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, told a think tank audience last year. “And I’m pretty certain they’re not going to allow that to happen.”
Hostage said in the speech that he has more UAVs than he needs.
“The fleet I’ve built up — and I’m still being prodded to build up to — is not relevant in that new theater,” he said.
A pilot himself, the general told the audience about an incident in which he was tracking a wanted man from the left seat of an MC-12.
“So we’re orbiting this village for about two hours waiting for this one dirtbag we’d been following to emerge,” when he saw an American convoy moving through his area, he said. The convoy was being protected by a helicopter, which spotted the man’s SUV. So we call the helicopter team, tell them to do an orbit. You know, stop, abort their attack.”
He says that prevented a major problem. A UAV, he said, wouldn’t have gotten the job done. Officials with General Atomics, which makes the Predator and Reaper, say they want to ensure that the aircraft can contribute in such areas.
“We are very interested in making sure the MQ-9 stays relevant for the strategic environment, particularly in the Pacific region. Part of that is survivability,” said Chris Pehrson, who directs strategic development for the company. “Making sure it can operate in an A2/AD environment.”
One command that’s been hungry for more ISR assets is Southern Command, which wants more eyes on the drug trade, FARC rebels, Venezuela, Cuba and more.
Retired Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, former SOUTHCOM commander, said the Predators and the Reapers could be used in some places, but in other areas it would be difficult. “Sovereignty in the Latin American countries is a very big issue,” he said. “I think there is the opportunity. It has to be worked on a case-by-case, country-by-country basis.”
Johanna Mendelsohn Forman, scholar in residence at American University, says there’s been considerable interest in unmanned technology in Latin America. She pointed out that at a recent forum of the Union of South American Nations, defense ministers resolved to pursue domestic production of UAVs.
But some experts are skeptical that the U.S. could easily persuade any nations in Latin America to allow overflights by the politically notorious drones returning from Afghanistan.
“It’s hard to imagine a lot of countries where this would fly in Latin America,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a progressive think tank. “Certainly the optics of it for the population would be terrible. ... Every leftist politician would include it in their speeches.”
The U.S. has already deployed small ScanEagle drones in Colombia. But that led to a small embarrassment in 2009, when FARC guerrillas triumphantly claimed to have shot one down.
Reapers and Predators are in another class entirely because in the psyche of modern times, they are the heart of the targeted killing program. “People think about drone strikes when they think about drones,” Isacson said.
“Big grey drones show up in other people’s countries,” said Capt. Bill Ipock, a Navy officer in SOUTHCOM’s Counterdrug Program, “there’s political aspects to that that you have to take a look at.”
Potentially, the biggest beneficiary of the UAVs’ departure from CENTCOM will be AFRICOM. There have drone operations out of Djibouti, after all, for years, and there have been drone strikes in Somalia. UAVs have also launched out of Seychelles and Ethiopia. In the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress approved $50 million in classified ISR for Operation Observant Compass, the hunt for Joseph Kony of the cultlike Lord’s Resistance Army.
But still, this is all part of a vast continent. Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is 3,300 miles away from the action in Mali, which is to say it is of no more use than a base in Italy. Africa’s vast space requires a network of landing strips, and basing issues there are a hornet’s nest. The Trans-Sahel is ringed by Algeria, Morocco, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Mali — all in a perpetual state of competition.
Still, the command has held its ISR beggar’s bowl out for quite a while.
“AFRICOM receives only about 7 percent of its total intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirements,” Gen. David Rodriguez, the new AFRICOM commander, wrote in February remarks to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“AFRICOM has a significantly underserviced ISR requirement,” Tart said.
But he said the basing concerns haven’t been addressed. “There’s not sufficient discussion about basing,” he said. “No one in my office or in many of the area Air Force offices understands that piece yet. So we’ve got some questions into AFRICOM: ‘Tell me what you need and what the requirement is.’ We’ve also asked AFRICOM and SOCOM: ‘What do you see the future of AFRICOM being? Is it one or two large locations? Or is it a number of smaller locations because the distances are so dramatic?’”
For now, the Predators flying from the small airbase in Niamey have a vast area to service. And there is nowhere near the basing required to absorb the hundreds of Reapers coming online.
So far, no Predators or Reapers have showed up at the AMARG, or the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group near Tucson, Ariz.
“I find the concept that they would go to the Boneyard,” Tart said, “as totally unrealistic because of requirements.”
This story appeared in the April issue of C4ISR Journal.