WASHINGTON — The Air Force is grappling with how to manage a potential glut of drones and may eventually scale back the number of combat missions flown with unmanned aircraft by more than 25 percent, the service’s top commander said Wednesday.
Gen. Mark Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, said the Predator and Reaper drones that have been a mainstay of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not well suited to many other regions where the U.S. military is looking to bolster its presence, such as the Pacific.
“I am a big fan of UAVs where they make sense,” he said, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles. “We shouldn’t rush into buying a whole bunch of remotely piloted aircraft just because we can.”
Welsh’s comments at a breakfast sponsored by the Defense Writers Group are the latest sign that the Air Force may have overfed its once-insatiable appetite for drones.
Under plans pushed by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Air Force was supposed to buy enough drones and train enough crews so that it could fly 65 combat air patrols round-the-clock by 2013.
The Air Force never quite reached that high, having maxed out at 62 combat air patrols today. Welsh said the service would probably reduce that number substantially. Although officials haven’t finalized a figure, he said “in the vicinity of 45 would be a good start.”
Welsh said a reduction is not imminent and probably wouldn’t happen until the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. The Air Force also uses the drones for surveillance and counterterrorism missions in places such as Yemen, West Africa, the Turkish-Iraqi border and Somalia.
It takes up to four drones to provide 24-hour coverage for a single combat air patrol. Although the aircraft are unmanned, they require lots of personnel to fly them by remote control and provide support on the ground – about 400 to 500 people for each combat air patrol.
“I don’t know where we’re going to go, but building bigger, more expensive, more cosmic ⅛drones€ probably isn’t the answer,” Welsh said. “There’s nothing cheap about them.”
The armed Predators and Reapers are tailor-made for counterterrorism operations and war zones such as Afghanistan, where the U.S. military controls the skies and the enemy lacks sufficient firepower to shoot down the drones. But the slow-moving planes aren’t designed to withstand antiaircraft defenses or air-to-air combat.
“Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment,” Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of the Air Combat Command, said at a conference in September. “I couldn’t put one into the Strait of Hormuz without having to put airplanes there to protect it.”
Welsh told reporters that the Air Force needs to spend more on other methods to conduct reconnaissance and gather intelligence from the air. He declined to be specific, but other Air Force officials have advocated for more money for satellites, manned spy planes and advanced stealth drones, as well as more-powerful electronic sensors for surveillance.
In Asia, the Air Force is still planning to expand its use of another kind of surveillance drone – the Global Hawk – which can stay aloft much longer and fly far greater distances than the Reaper or the Predator. Unlike those drones, the Global Hawk is unarmed.
Last month, U.S. and Japanese officials announced an agreement to base a handful of Global Hawks in Japan, starting next year. The Air Force already flies Global Hawks from a base in Guam.
Welsh made clear, however, that he thinks the Air Force needs to dedicate the bulk of its long-term budget to modernize and upgrade traditional types of aircraft – those flown by pilots in the cockpit.
In the coming years, for example, the Air Force plans to buy more than 1,700 F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, will replace many of its aging refueling tankers and is designing a new long-range stealth bomber. All of those airplanes will cost exponentially more than most types of drones.
“We don’t exist to fight a counterinsurgency,” Welsh said, referring to the types of wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We can help in that, but air forces – major air forces – exist to fight full-spectrum conflict against a well-armed, well-trained determined foe. If we can’t do that as a nation, then I don’t think we’re doing our job.”