More Drones Needed to Fight Two-Front War

By Jon Harper
XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator

Air Force photo

The U.S. military needs to beef up its unmanned aerial systems arsenal to be able to fight two wars simultaneously against advanced adversaries China and Russia, analysts say.

The National Defense Strategy identifies those two nations as great power competitors and the top threats to U.S. national security. Nevertheless, the document established what is essentially a one-war force sizing construct, experts cautioned in a recent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report titled, “Five Priorities for the Air Force’s Future Combat Air Force.”

“Preparing to prevent China and Russia from succeeding in major acts of aggression should be a fundamental force design priority,” study authors Mark Gunzinger, Carl Rehberg and Lukas Autenried wrote.

To mitigate capacity shortfalls and more cost-effectively develop a force sized for a two-front war, the service should aggressively pursue new drones that could be used for a wider range of mission sets in a broader set of threat environments, the airpower analysts recommended.

“The Air Force should develop new concepts for employing existing and future UAS, including MQ-9s, lower-cost attritable UAS, and other unmanned systems that could be delivered in the near term,” the report said.

“In the long term, more advanced UAS designs that are capable of penetrating contested environments could team with manned stealth aircraft to conduct counter-air, long-range standoff area surveillance, strikes, electronic warfare and other combat operations” as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, it added.

Examples of current and future drones that could be procured at relatively low unit cost include: attritable Gremlins small UAS, $700,000 or less; an attritable medium UAS, $1 million or less; attritable Valkyrie medium- to large-sized platforms, $2 million to $3 million; MQ-9 Reapers, about $20 million; and Avenger extended-range systems, about $25 million.

In comparison, a manned F-16 fighter jet costs about $70 million to procure, according to the report.

In addition to being less expensive to buy, drones are cheaper to operate than manned aircraft if manufactured in significant quantities, the study noted.

“The operational cost per flying hour of attritable UAS … are far less than the least expensive Air Force manned aircraft,” it said. “Only a handful of Air Force aircraft has an [operational cost per flying hour] that is better than the … MQ-9 Reaper, which is now one of the least costly aircraft to operate in the entire Air Force.”

The relatively low cost of procuring and operating drones could help free up funding for other critical modernization priorities, the report noted.

“It should also be mentioned that the U.S. defense industrial base may be able to quickly surge the production of some attritable UAS models if needed,” the authors wrote. “The ability to surge production would improve the Air Force’s ability to ramp-up its capacity to deter or counter emerging threats in a crisis.”

The Air Force should have hundreds of these types of systems in its inventory by the end of the decade to enhance the service’s capability and capacity, including fighter-sized UAS and “MQ-X” stealth drones, they said.

The service’s fiscal year 2021 budget request includes numerous initiatives in the research, development, test and evaluation accounts for new drone technologies and manned-unmanned teaming, including low-cost, attritable systems. For 2021, it asked for $158 million for its high priority Vanguard efforts to develop next-generation systems, plus an additional $206 across the future years defense program. The Vanguard initiative includes a project called Skyborg.

“The first iteration of Skyborg will integrate artificial intelligence into autonomous unmanned air vehicles to enable future manned-unmanned teaming,” budget documents said. 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the estimated cost for Gremlins small UAS.

Topics: Budget, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Robotics

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