Different Futures: While purchases of the MQ-9 Reaper, above, remain strong, the role of the Predator is dwindling. (General Atomics)
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WASHINGTON — If there is a symbol of America’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would probably be this: a UAV stalking across the sky, silently watching the world below.
But with one military drawdown complete and another one ongoing, coinciding with severe budget constraints, the US Air Force is looking to cut the number of UAV combat air patrols from 65, a number required under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to 55. That number could drop further if sequestration funded levels are not raised in 2016, as is likely.
That doesn’t mean the service is abandoning its UAV program, but the future looks much more secure for the Reaper than the Predator.
“Over time, of course, we need to double down on our efforts to develop unmanned aerial aircraft that can operate in contested environments,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said. “The Predators and the Reapers have been terrific, but they cannot operate well in a contested environment. In Afghanistan, no one was able to shoot them down or interfere with their operation. That won’t always be the case, so we do need to invest in that in the future.
“Our budget proposal, both the high end and the lower end, should we have to go to sequestration, does contain adequate numbers of these combat air patrols, although over time we will gradually be retiring the Predator in favor of the full-up Reaper capability.”
The Air Force has purchased a total of 259 Predators throughout the platforms history, but crashes and retirements have left the service with a current fleet size of 154 platforms, which the service plans to retire between fiscal 2015 and 2017. Those plans are dependent on congressional decisions, but there has been no groundswell against divesting the MQ-1s, likely because they would be replaced with an all-Reaper fleet.
The MQ-9 Reapers offer better payload capabilities and range, particularly if they are equipped with a major re-winging program that extends the operational capability of the Reaper by about 10 hours. The standard Reaper is configured for 30 hours for the ISR model and roughly 23 hours if armed with Hellfire missiles. General Atomics, the developer of the MQ-1 and MQ-9, said the extended-range model would increase those times to 42 hours for ISR and 35 hours with the Hellfire.
In other words, the Predators are falling victim to their faster, stronger brothers. That leaves the Air Force to find a home for over 100 outdated, unwanted, but still functional surveillance drones.
Those systems are likely tabbed for the “boneyard” at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tuscon, Arizona. Ironically, Davis-Monthan is home to the Arizona Air National Guard’s 214th Reconnaissance Group, which operates unmanned vehicles as part of its mission. A spokeswoman for the Air Force said a decision on how the MQ-1s would be stored at the boneyard has not been made.
But is there a way to extend the life of these systems?
One possibility would be to transfer Predators to the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) or hand them off to the Coast Guard. Both agencies have shown interest in expanded fleets of unmanned surveillance systems, but affording the system could be a challenge.
“The problem both CBP and the Coast Guard have is that they both have very tight budgets,” said Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for the Teal Group.
He notes that CBP already flies MQ-9s along the border and may not want to “downgrade” its small fleet of unmanned systems. As is, CBP has come under fire from watchdog groups for the cost of its MQ-9 program.
The Coast Guard might be a better bet, Finnegan said. The service has sought unmanned capability for years, including a failed attempt at developing its own specialized platform known as the Eagle Eye, and has a standing interest in land-based UAVs. Taking the older Predators from the Air Force may be a cheap option.
Potential markets exist abroad, but the Air Force could face legal restrictions on sales.
Some of the technology in the Predator would be subject to the Missile Technology Control Regime, limiting potential sales. While General Atomics addressed that issue in 2011 with its Predator XP, designed specifically for export around the world, the Air Force’s fleet of Predators would face restrictions.
And as with CBP, the market is limited by the presence of the Reaper. Partner nations such as the UK, Italy and France are filling their requirements for a medium- altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned system with the more advanced MQ-9s, leaving little room for the Predator.
“Countries that have the MQ-9 are unlikely to want the MQ-1,” Finnegan said. “It’s been such a limited number of countries that the US has been willing, so far, to sell [MALE] technology to. It’s hard to predict what would be the potential for foreign transfers of these systems.”
For its part, General Atomics is hopeful the MQ-1 will find a second life, one that could bring lucrative modification and support contracts for the San Diego-based company.
“Since 1995 Predator has proven itself a reliable and cost-effective ISR platform used to support a range of military and humanitarian missions, from protecting troops on the battlefield to assisting firefighters battling the severest of wildfires,” Kimberly Kasitz, General Atomics spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
“We believe the MQ-1 has great utility for future use in a wide variety of military and civil applications at both the federal and state level, as well as commercial applications.” ■