A Reaper taxis prior to takeoff, Afghanistan, 2012, via USAF.
You hear it often: The American war machine is not only going fully droned, if it hasn't already. Unmanned, remotely-piloted spy-and-kill craft, this line of thinking goes, have now so thoroughly infiltrated US armed forces that it's only a matter of time before the joystick warriors, of which there are more currently being trained than conventional pilots, replace yesteryear's fly girls and boys once and for all.
It's a fairly compelling refrain, especially now that "war" takes the shadowy shape of lethal operations as endless as they are borderless. But too bad it really doesn't hold water, at least not yet.
Just look at what's been going on throughout the Air Force. It's as if drones pose such a threat to traditional means of aerial warfare that the flying service's historically kneejerk resistance to anything too closely aligned with sweeping technological change finds it bristling today at prospective gamechangers of the unmanned sort. Nevermind that the AF's active remotely-piloted combat aircraft outnumber its active manned bomber inventory by about 2-to-1. For perspective, as Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta writes in the July issue of the Air & Space Power Journal, an official USAF publication, consider that "RPA [remotely-piloted aircraft] personnel enjoy one wing command" (at Creeeh Air Base - Nevada) while fighter pilots control 26.
In other words, "the ratio of wing-command opportunities for RPA pilots versus those who fly manned combat aircraft is a staggering 1-to-26."
Such personnel policies that seemingly favor manned standbys are part and parcel of deep-rooted, institutional stigmas. In a 2008 speech, General Norton Schwarz, who served as AF chief from 2008 to 2012, did not mince words when he said that this systemic obsession with all-things manned has turned the Air Force's swelling drone ranks into a "leper colony". To his credit, Schwarz would push until the bitter end (he was ultimately canned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) for common sensical AF overhauls, which in many cases meant biting the bullet and embracing the new, leaner technologies of war and ensuring upward mobility for all those tasked with handling the stuff.
But no matter. Air Force brass are seeing to it that the "institutional hold on power" that fighter pilots and their aircraft, most notably the faulty and expensive F-35 stealth fighter, have consolidated since 9/11 continues apace. Spinetta likens the AF's efforts to beat back perceived drone creep to a Too-Big-To-Fail corporate strategy that's giving short shrift to potentially more cost-effective, more efficient alternatives for, among other things, retaining whatever honor there is in spying on / dropping explosives on humans from relatively close physical proximities, not air-conditioned trailers on the opposite side on the planet.
Here's how they've done it.
In early 2012, the Air Force announced that it would stop procuring new models of the Global Hawk Block 30, the widely used long-endurance, high-altitude reconnaissance drone. (Oh, and that it would mothball its existing Block 30 fleet, to boot.) That the AF halting new Block 30 Hawks didn't just immediately see Northrop Grumman powering down its assembly line, but instead included provisions to go ahead and roll a number of the would-be spy drones straight off the assembly line and into storage is something Spinetta (who it should be noted holds a master's in public policy from Harvard, a doctorate from the AF's School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, and who's logged 65 missions combat missions in an F-15 high above the Balkans and Iraq) finds remarkable.
DON'T REAP THE NEW REAPERS
A month later, the AF pulled the rug out from under the MQ-X program, the cornerstone of the Defense Department's vision quest-y Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009 - 2047 (pdf) that sought to expand use of the hunter-killer drone better known as the Reaper.
DON'T REAP THE OLD REAPERS
The AF didn't forget the MQ-9, the "older" Reaper model. The flight service halved its previously slated end acquisition of MQ-9s--the AF will now only buy 24 of the lethal drones. That;s down from the 48 Reapers it originally planned to acquite between 2012 and 2017.
This past February, the AF killed plans for its program for the Global Hawk Block 40, the bigger and badder, next-level spy plane.
Most recently, the AF announced (pdf) that effective Fiscal Year 2014 it will shutter its UAV Battlelab, a sprawling drone proving ground near Creech. What's more, the service is also looking into how to "revisit" (see: scale down) the fielding of 65 remotely-piloted combat air patrol originally laid out in a directive from the Joint Requirement's Oversight Council.
Don't get it wrong. None of this is to say that one type of aerial slaughter is more attractive, or more honorable than another type of aerial slaughter. Both are equally disturbing, if avoidable should the Obama administration really mean it when it says that no war should be endless.
What this is meant to illustrate, however, is that within the US armed forces, at least, entrenched policies and stigmas can very well carry on ad infinitum. Which is to say you may start hearing this more often: The Air Force putting all its eggs in a single basket is, of course, wholly predictable even if it is very unwise.
"The service has essentially linked its future to one manned combat platform—the F-35," Spinetta adds, "while slowing the development of RPAs, a potential alternative."
Manned sky wars will just keep getting pricier and slower and heavier. You may start hearing this one posed more and more often: If it's too big to fail has it still been an honor?