Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Experts warn the free ride for UAVs is ending as spending constraints loom

Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal reports that UAVs played a big role in getting bin Laden, and speculates that the new RQ-170 stealth drone seen flying out of Kandahar may have been zooming around Pakistan, which makes sense. Meanwhile, here’s a stepback look at the future of drones. By Jacqueline Koo Best Defense ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal reports that UAVs played a big role in getting bin Laden, and speculates that the new RQ-170 stealth drone seen flying out of Kandahar may have been zooming around Pakistan, which makes sense.

Meanwhile, here's a stepback look at the future of drones.

By Jacqueline Koo
Best Defense bureau of drone affairs

Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal reports that UAVs played a big role in getting bin Laden, and speculates that the new RQ-170 stealth drone seen flying out of Kandahar may have been zooming around Pakistan, which makes sense.

Meanwhile, here’s a stepback look at the future of drones.

By Jacqueline Koo
Best Defense bureau of drone affairs

Drones have had it easy in recent years, buzzing all over the skies without a care. But life is about to get tougher for the seemingly ubiquitous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), said panelists at a recent Washington seminar.  

The most important aspect of the comfortable environment for the pesky little planes has been financial, experts said at the conference hosted on April 20 by the Institute of International Strategic Studies (IISS) on "The Future of Unmanned Air Power." Air Force Col. Dean Bushey warned that because of the weak economy and looming defense budget cuts, the "fiscally permissive" environment will no longer exist and said that "we can no longer just say ‘buy more and send it to theater’; we now have to be efficient and effective in our use."

With those shifting circumstances in mind, the panelists listed several improvements and considerations that UAVs program will have to undertake in order to move forward:

–being able to quickly react to new regional requirements and apportioning the supply accordingly

— increasing the interoperability and modularity of capabilities to take on a more diverse range of physical environments

–taking into consideration contested commons that may not stay friendly for long (for example, hardening against potential GPS- and communications-denied environments)

–measuring UAV capabilities against adversaries

–to the extent possible, making UAVs more autonomous.

The panelists also sought to counter what they see as myths about the remotely piloted systems. Air Force Lt. Col. Bruce Black said that, "There’s nothing unmanned about unmanned aircraft." Rather, he said, approximately 180 personnel are involved with operating each MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper mission.

The consensus was that these things are here to stay. "These systems have become so ubiquitous that for the 0-4 level [major] and below, it’s hard to imagine a world in which we didn’t do this and do it this way," said former CIA director and retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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