The Criticality of Drones

Last month an interesting article was published in Government Executive’s Defense One publication. The piece was titled “The U.S. Needs More Drones,” and it discussed how drones are a potent tool against the inherently unpredictable nature of the terrorist threat. The author then goes on to say that the military is cutting the funding for drones due to a case of “next war-it is,” rather than looking to increase drone usage and supply.

While I definitely share the author’s confidence in the efficacy of drones to combat terrorism, I think his conclusion is off. The DoD is dealing with budget reality, not turning away from drone use. Recent changes in drone policy have far more to do with financial constraints and (critically) significant improvements in capability than any kind of “next war-it is.”

I believe I know why the author may be keying on for his conclusion. The congressionally mandated FY14 Annual Aviation and Inventory Funding Plan called for drone combat air patrols (CAPs) to grow to 65. Due to budget cuts, the DoD will only achieve 55 – but with an unprecedented ability to surge to 71 CAPs if needed. Plus, the newer updated drones will be much more capable than those in use today.

For example, the Army continues to improve its ISR capability. Their ISR strategy incorporates manned and unmanned ISR at an unprecedented level.  The Army’s sensors will include the traditional SIGINT and Full Motion Video (FMV) payloads, and also enhanced sensors, such as hyper-spectral imagery and laser radar.

The Army will continue fielding MQ- I C Gray Eagle remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and will begin fielding the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) in FY15, replacing the aging RC-12 Guardrail systems.

Improving the capability of the entire fleet of ISR platforms is critical. All the services know this, and the amount of funding they’ve been able to preserve in a period of static budgets and declining OCO funds is testament to that fact. Plus, those numbers don’t even get into classified programs or space-based ISR, where a lot of capacity resides today and will continue to increase tomorrow.

Yes, the U.S. military needs to increase drone use to combat terrorism. That’s exactly what it’s doing today, and planning to do more of tomorrow.

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