Air Force Chief: Some Drones Won’t Be Coming Home After Afghanistan
But the Air Force chief of staff has a message for those fearing an invasion of the national airspace by Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks. Contrary to some assumptions, the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft won’t all end up back in the United States, Gen. Norton Schwartz said June 11 at an Air Force Association breakfast in Arlington, Va.
As combat operations drawn down, much of the Air Force’s airborne surveillance capability will be sent to the Pacific and South America, where commanders have been clamoring for more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, Schwartz said. Some remotely piloted aircraft will be brought back to the continental United States, as well as to Hawaii and Guam.
“Some of the capacity will return to the states and we’ll use that to train organically and with our teammates,” Schwartz said. The rest will be used in operational missions by previously underserved combatant commands, particularly U.S. Southern Command and Pacific Command, he said.
Both commands have requested improved ISR capabilities. Southern Command wants to keep an eye on drug smuggling operations in South America and is seeking better sensors to get glimpses of criminals hiding in heavy jungle. Commander of Southern Command Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser told reporters earlier this year that his troops only have fleeting access to the Global Hawk, which can fly at altitudes up to 65,000 feet and for up to 35 hours.
Still, officials have acknowledged that unmanned aircraft may not be the only answer to their needs.
“I’ve got to make sure, as we look at this overall problem, where [unmanned aerial vehicles] fit within the problem set,” Fraser said in March. “I’m not convinced that just because it’s a UAV, it will solve our problems.”
Current Predator and Reaper drones were not built for use in hostile skies. And in the Asia-Pacific region, there are potential adversaries that can deploy surface-to-air missiles, radar and other air defenses to counter unmanned planes. This region requires aircraft that can fly at higher altitudes for longer periods of time without being detected, officials said.
As a near-term solution, General Atomics has said it could increase the Reaper’s endurance up to 42 hours by extending its wings. The company also has been developing the more survivable Predator C Avenger, which is supposed to fly faster and higher than the current class.
Domestically, the Air Force continues to discuss with the Federal Aviation Administration the best options for flying its unmanned aircraft in training missions. Dozens of locales are bidding to be one of six spots around the country where drones will be able to fly in the same airspace as piloted aircraft.
“There is an inclination I think to try to find formerly restricted airspace where that might occur,” Schwartz said. The Air Force’s preference is to bring unmanned operations out of such space and into the national airspace “in order to broaden their access and enable us to train wherever our airmen or our joint teammates may reside,” he said.