The Air Force is seeking to nearly double its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles by 2011.
Its goal is to operate 212 unmanned drones by 2011, up from the current 137.
The Air Force currently has 110 Predators, 20 Reapers and seven Global Hawks.
The Predator is a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAV system that performs reconnaissance missions and can shoot Hellfire missiles. The Reaper is a medium-to-high altitude, long endurance unmanned aircraft that is much larger and more heavily armed than the Predator. The Global Hawk is a high altitude, long-range drone used mainly for surveillance.
The Air Force wants to expand its fleet as quickly as possible, Air Force officials said. This includes purchasing ground control stations and training the required crews. The goal is to train up to 1,100 pilots to fly unmanned drones over Iraq and Afghanistan from a base in Nevada.
“In the next few years we’re purchasing aircraft about one-third of which are unmanned,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz.
New UAV operators will learn the rudiments of flying a small manned plane, but will not undergo the more rugged training that fighter pilots receive.
The push for more personnel to fly unmanned equipment is a result of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ criticism of the Air Force for not providing sufficient surveillance support to ground commanders.
The Air National Guard is also seeking to increase its fleet of unmanned drones. It’s goal is to receive more than 55 Predators and Reapers by 2011 and to allocate more than 1,600 personnel to that mission by 2009. The numbers are subject to change as the war progresses and as technology advances.
The Air National Guard said it is also engaged in recruiting additional personnel as new UAV units are activated, but that it has been a hurdle. “Current obstacles for the [Air National Guard] are training its personnel,” said an Air Guard official.
Nathan Hughes, a military analyst at Stratfor, said that future funding for new unmanned aircraft could be a challenge for the Air Force.
“The question is that with all that funding going to the manned systems, how much room is left ….for really pushing the envelope for what unmanned systems can do,” Hughes said.
Another concern is whether the proposed increase in UAVs is enough to meet the Air Force’s and Air National Guard’s needs.
Barry Watts, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the problem is that the Air Force cannot keep up with the insatiable demand for UAV surveillance.
“They could put 500 out there by 2011 but you’d still have guys out there whining that they didn’t get enough coverage,” he said. “That’s just sort of the nature of this enterprise.”
More important than sheer numbers is how competently and quickly the information that unmanned aircraft gather can be analyzed and used, he said. Turning data that has been collected by drones into targetable information is critical, he said. The amount of analysis is more important than getting just a few more Reapers, he said.
When the war in Iraq ends, the Air Force’s long-term plan is to station them at each of the Air National Guard bases, officials said.
The Government Electronics and Information Technology Association projects that UAV procurements will decline during the next decade. The Defense Department is spending $3.5 billion on UAVs in 2009, which amounts to 10 percent of all aircraft procurements. By 2019, spending could drop to $2.6 billion, said GEIA.