Defense Secretary Robert Gates told lawmakers Thursday he is considering making the Air Force's next-generation long-range bomber a pilotless aircraft -- an ambitious undertaking that would put unmanned technologies at the forefront of U.S. offensive military capabilities.
The Air Force had planned to field a manned bomber in 2018, but Gates canceled the nascent program in the fiscal 2010 budget request sent to Capitol Hill last week. At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Gates said advances in unmanned technologies since the Air Force launched the bomber program in 2006 were among the reasons he stopped the program, which was not under contract. "Does it need a pilot in it?" he asked.
Gates said he will review requirements for the bomber during the Quadrennial Defense Review of military capabilities and needs, now under way. The Air Force, long steeped in the culture of combat aircraft pilots, had been expected to field a manned bomber, but officials in recent years left open the option of an unmanned version of the aircraft.
In recent weeks, Gates and other top Pentagon officials have emphasized in statements that the future of aviation rests largely in the unmanned aerial vehicle-technology that has been used increasingly in Iraq and Afghanistan, for traditional surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and striking targets.
Indeed, the fiscal 2010 budget request includes nearly $1.3 billion to buy 60 Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, $1.5 billion for five Global Hawks and $225 million to buy 1,232 smaller Raven and Shadow UAVs -- with more investments expected. During Thursday's testimony, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen said the military is at a "real transition time here" regarding the mix of manned and unmanned aircraft. The four-star admiral added he is "inclined to believe" that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in development will be the last manned fighter jet procured by the U.S. military.
Meanwhile, Gates shot down any suggestion that the Air Force needs more than the 187 F-22 Raptor fighter jets planned, saying the F-22 fleet, when combined with F-35s and UAVs, will be more than adequate to meet any threat, including one from China. "If you're only talking about the F-22, there may be merit to some of these arguments," Gates said. "But the fact is the F-22 is not going to be the only aircraft in the tac [tactical] air arsenal."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., whose state has the F-22 assembly plant, said the military needs more Raptors, which have air-to-ground capabilities, because of the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles. But Gates replied that "the only defense against surface-to-air missiles is not something that has a pilot in it."