The U.S. Air Force wants to dramatically increase the number of drones, drone crews, and drone bases that collect intelligence and conduct strikes on groups like ISIS. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times and other outlets reported on plans to add 75 MQ-9 Reaper drones to its current fleet of 175 (plus 150 Predators). The service is also looking to add 3,500 Reaper personnel, create nine squadrons to add to today’s eight, and open new operations centers at bases around the country. It’s all part of a $3 billion plan to meet the rapidly growing demand for drone operations.
“We’re responding to a demand signal that is current from combatant commanders," Air Combat Command spokesman Benjamin Newell told Defense One. "We don’t make the decision to bulk up the force in response to a specific threat. Commanders say they want more of X. We provide more of X."
Newell pushed back against the idea that the ramp up was specifically in response to ISIS, or that the new crews would be tasked specifically to go against ISIS.
“It’s going to be a be a number of things that they’re going to be doing. Some of it will be operational. Some of it will be training. Some of it will be testing,” he said.
Newell noted that the current drone force has “been operating at surge capacity non-stop” for its entire existence.
“That’s a function of the type of information that these platforms provide. It’s not specific to a need that has emerged over the last year,” he said.
The Obama administration has had an ambivalent relationship with drones. Last year, the Quadrennial Defense Review called for reducing the Air Force’s Predator and Reaper fleets by 15 percent and trimming 10 combat air patrols from the 65 round-the-clock missions. The thinking was that Predator and Reaper were relics of counter-terrorism operations that would soon be on the wane. The future was in the Pacific, building up equipment for a long Cold-Warish unofficial containment policy against China for which medium-range drones were poorly suited.
But that was dubious even then. “Demand for airborne surveillance for critical missions like countering terrorism far outstrips supply,” Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, wrote in Defense One. “The ugly disease of ‘next war-itis’ that Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeatedly warned about during his tenure has flared up in the Pentagon yet again.”
And it was conclusively proven false by the deterioration of stability in Syria and Iraq. In September 2014, then-Defense Department Undersecretary Michael Vickers described a shift in thinking that was underway, forced by the rapid rise of the Islamic State.
“We thought we could reduce the rate of growth for our fleet — some — in the years ahead and now we’re really, really looking at that,” Vickers said at an Intelligence and National Security Summit. “We’ll probably wind up with a different [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] mix after the budget cycle than we would have a year ago because of the rise of ISIL and other challenges,” he said.
In February, the White House sent a 2016 budget proposal to Congress that boosted the number of Reaper drones it wanted to buy.
During the summer, the Pentagon decreased the number of combat air patrols that drone pilots had to fly from 65 to 60. The reason had less to do with waning need than operator and personnel burnout.
“There’s no dwell for them. Some of them have flown combat straight three, four, five years,” Col. Jim Cluff, who commands the 432nd Wing and the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, told reporters at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Cluff said operator crews were “constantly engaged in combat for years at a time.”
Today, Creech, which sits on a desolate stretch of interstate some 45 miles outside of Las Vegas, is the hub for United States drone operations against the Islamic State. That would change under the Air Force plan, which would add up five new operations centers, likely at Beale Air Force Base in California where the new crew members might be co-located with intelligence assets, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Hawaii’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, also where intelligence assets do intelligence processing. Between 400 to 500 airmen would be stationed at each of the new ops centers.
“This is very significant because it acknowledges that the high global demand for persistent airborne surveillance is the new normal,” Scharre told Defense One in an email responding to the announcement. “For a long time, there was an assumption that as we drew down in Iraq and Afghanistan, demand for drones would largely go away. But of course terrorism remains a significant national security threat. When demand is high and supply is low, it's the drone pilots that get squeezed, and that's not keeping faith with our people. This should hopefully restore balance in the community by properly resourcing Air Force RPAs (drones) and allow DoD to better meet the most high priority missions at a sustainable op tempo.”
The use of drone strikes, in addition to (or in lieu of) actual ground troops, is likely to continue. More than 58 percent of the public approves of U.S. drone strikes targeted at “extremists” according to a Pew Research Center poll from May. Even presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, has supported the continuation of drone strikes as part of counter-terrorism operations.
But some serious questions remain about how effective drone strikes have been against groups like the Islamic State. For a sense of the overall effects of the allied airstrikes, check out this video by Defense One’s Ben Watson.
Stanley McChrystal, who once ran the Joint Special Operations Command, recently described the U.S. use of drones overseas as more harmful than beneficial to the broader cause of countering terrorism. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates.” They are, the retired general said, “hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
Those sentiments were echoed by retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who said, “When you drop a bomb from a drone … you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good.”