The Limits of the Military’s Drone Strategy

February 13, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Considering the seeming increase of global terrorism that has sprouted within the last five years, intelligence is more vital than ever.  The United States has a robust intelligence infrastructure, yet various factors and parameters have forced a reevaluation and adjustment in strategy.  Chief among them is the military’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platform.  ISR is an essential piece of the overall intelligence apparatus and helps shape military operations around the world.  However, budgetary constraints, personnel limitations, and differences in strategy have altered the ISR framework and reliance.

It’s no secret the MQ-9 Reaper, an unmanned aircraft manufactured by General Atomics and the next generation of the MQ-1 Predator, is one, if not the, military’s favorite tool in the ISR shed, given its dual ISR and lethal strike capability.  The Reaper is larger than its precursor, which means it can be outfitted with more Hellfire missiles.  The Air Force will purchase 29 additional Reaper drones at the tune of $821 million.  Currently, the Air Force has 228 active Reapers for fiscal year 2016.  In addition to the Air Force’s Reaper drones, the Army will also be procuring more weaponized drones (the MQ-1 Gray Eagle) similar to the Reaper.

The Air Force has now placed a greater importance on Reaper drones referred to as medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) aircraft.  MALE aircraft typically range from a ceiling, or maximum flight height, of 25,000 to 50,000 feet.  Additionally, MALE aircraft are capable of 24 hour missions.

Drones, especially MALE aircraft, were thought of as a panacea of sorts because their continuous flight times could allow for nearly constant surveillance of a particular area while also having the capability to strike (accurately despite misleading information to the contrary) at any moment.

However, such aircraft are extremely limited for several reasons. Reaper drones, in which the Air Force is placing a great deal of investment in, are only effective in certain environments.  Reapers, Predators, and similar aircraft are very slow moving-only capable of speeds under 300 miles per hour and fly relatively low.  Such aircraft would be virtually ineffective in environments where militaries possess modern radar and anti-aircraft capability, such as Russia, which was linked to providing the anti-aircraft weaponry that downed a Malaysian commercial liner this summer flying at 33,000 feet.

MALE drones have peaked in environments lacking a strong central government, insurgencies that lack advanced anti-aircraft weapons, or central governments who have granted the United States permission to operate within their borders.  As noted in a widely renowned report on the U.S. drone policy published by the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, “For now, the military utility of lethal UAVs is mostly limited to situations in which they are used, either with host nation acquiescence or in territories lacking sophisticated air defense systems, against relatively isolated terrorist targets.”  An additional limitation the report highlights is the susceptibility of drones to be hijacked.  Since they are remotely operated, hackers can, and have, gained access to surveillance data and have even been able to control some aircraft.

The Air Force will not be procuring any additional RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, manufactured by Northrop Grumman.  The Global Hawk family is classified under high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) aircraft, and are not weaponized.  They are outfitted with advanced electro-optical sensors, infrared sensors, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) sensors.  The sensing payloads allow for advanced vision during the day, night and through cloud cover while also capable of mapping environments below.

Operating at 60,000 feet, well above commercial aircraft ceilings, the Global Hawk draws significantly less attention than the constant humming produced by MALE aircraft that has stoked fear in many tribal regions where they operate.  Initially, the Global Hawk was thought to replace the age old U-2 “Dragon Lady,” a manned reconnaissance aircraft from the Cold War era.  The U-2, which can fly at near space altitudes, is a very trusted and reliable piece of equipment that the military enjoys, though, it is extremely difficult to fly (there are only a select few pilots in the Air Force qualified to fly it) and flight missions can last for ten hours.

In a briefing to reporters at the Pentagon following the release of the Defense Department’s budget, Air Force Deputy Assistant Secretary for Budget, Maj. Gen. James F. Martin stressed the importance of ISR, yet discussed how budgetary constraints have forced the military to cut back.  Maj. Gen. Martin stated that due to such constraints, ISR capacity would be reduced to the equivalent of medium altitude capabilities supporting missions in Iraq and Syria.  Furthermore, the retirement of the Global Hawk will cut down Central and Pacific Command’s collection of ground moving targets by 6,000 hours per day – a critical loss as such surveillance allows military officials to gain valuable insight into the inner workings of terror cells by observing their movement and numbers.

The U-2 was retired in fiscal year 2015, though, its retirement is being held off for another four years, albeit at a divestment, which, according to Maj. Gen. Martin, will reduce high-altitude ISR capacity by 50 percent.  The military did not wish to retire the U-2 so soon, though Congress forced their hand. According to reporting by Breaking Defense, “Keeping the U-2s actually was the Air Force plan until last March, when Secretary Deborah Lee James said that a drop in Global Hawk Block 30 sustainment costs justified the change in plan. It also happens that the Northrop-built Global Hawk has some passionate supporters in Congress, while the last new U-2 was built in 1989.”  Congress had boxed the military in by forcing them to purchase Global Hawks with no other funds going to ISR.  That left the military with one option, retire the U-2 to pay for the Global Hawks that Congress wanted despite the fact that it could take up to eight years for the Global Hawk to provide 90 percent of the duties for similar manned aircraft.

The Navy, on the other hand, will be procuring three new MQ-4 Tritons, HALE aircraft manufactured by Northrop Grumman very similar to the Global Hawk.  The Triton has a maximum ceiling of 56,500 feet with a top speed of 380 miles per hour and an endurance of 24 hours as compared to the higher ceiling and endurance of the Global Hawk.  Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Budget, Rear Adm. William K. Lescher explained to reporters that low-rate production for the Triton will begin in fiscal year 2016, but Triton quantities will begin to decrease given budgetary restrictions.  Each branch has different needs for different systems.  The Navy’s mission for the HALE Triton states, “The MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) is integral to recapitalizing the Navy’s Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Force. The Triton capability has been developed for the maritime persistent Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission. Teamed with its manned-capability counterpart, the P-8A, Triton will be a key component of the Navy’s family of systems to achieve maritime domain awareness.”  Rear Adm. Lescher also stated that the Triton will be “preferentially put to the Pacific” to support the Obama administration’s rebalance, or “pivot” to the Pacific region.  This differs in context to the Air Force, which provides broader ISR throughout the globe over the ground; “The RQ-4 [Global Hawk] Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) provides high altitude, deep look, long-endurance intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) capability that complements space and other airborne collectors during peacetime, crisis, and war-fighting scenarios.”

It is not entirely the fault of the military for the alteration in ISR strategy as a heavy reliance on MALE ISR is not ideal.  Given certain UAV limitations, the military is constantly trying to upgrade their capabilities to maintain an edge on their enemies.  As many experts have pointed out, drones were great for the U.S. when they had a monopoly on them, but now with more and more countries, and some militant groups, proliferating, the U.S. must adapt to maintain their edge.

One way the military is seeking to do this is by inviting industry partners to discuss ways in which drones can “hunt like a pack of wolves.”  Specifically, the military desires new technology to enable drones to work together under the direction of a single operator.  According to the program’s manager, “Just as wolves hunt in coordinated packs with minimal communication, unmanned aircraft would collaborate to find, track, identify, and engage targets, all under the command of a single human mission supervisor.”

Deficiencies in intelligence are exemplified in Yemen and Syria, where the lack of human sources, (human intelligence or HUMINT), have hindered operations.  In the wake of the Shia-separatist Houthi take-over of Yemen’s capital, the United States has lost a valuable partner in former Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi for counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), thought to be the most active and dangerous of the al-Qaeda franchise.  Despite these reports, the U.S. has continued its strikes against AQAP.  Without individuals on the ground providing intelligence for tactical locations of militants, the operators must rely on other forms of intelligence such as airborne ISR. However, Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. John Kirby stated at a recent briefing “we continue to conduct counterterrorism training with Yemeni security forces, and we are still capable inside Yemen of conducting counterterrorism operations.” The apparent coup, though, does make things much more complicated. Similar deficiencies exist in Syria.  Without reliable partners on the ground, it is very difficult to assess the success of strikes and identify targets, which has led some to question “whether the United States and other air forces bombing targets in Syria really know what they are hitting and destroying.”

To make matters worse, reports have indicated that the Air Force is lacking in personnel to fly drone missions.  Typically, each aircraft needs a pilot, a navigator, and a sensor operator to man the advanced cameras and mapping equipment.  The Air Force is currently at the “breaking point” and does not have enough people to fly all missions necessary.  The job is so taxing that that many have dropped out.  The Air Force has employed additional methods to incentivize individuals to fly missions.

Furthermore, the military cut its drone fleet from 65 patrols to 55 prior to the rise of the Islamic State group.  Following the terrorist organization’s incursion into Iraq, the military bumped their force back up to 65 with funding and resources for 55.  Such restrictions critically hinder the military’s intelligence collection capabilities.

The United States maintains several intelligence platforms, some more controversial than others.  However, the initial monopoly on drones, which led to an overreliance on ISR, combined with budget restraints and lack of HUMINT have created a hindrance for intelligence networks.  Several members of the military have recently lamented on the dangers of sequestration and have urged lawmakers to reverse its damaging effects.  For the time being, mid-level, weaponized drones will have to remain a top tool in the arsenal.