An MQ-9 Reaper on the runway. Image: Air National Guard
While the military prepares for another year of belt tightening, some key drone programs will get more funding support in 2015. According to a budget released by the Pentagon today, the military has increased acquisitions budgets for half of its drone programs as compared to 2014, while research and development budgets have also been boosted.
So while the defense budget as a whole remains relatively flat as compared to 2014, the armed forces continue to expand their drone fleets, and have also introduced money-saving plans to retire some traditional aircraft programs in favor of expand drone roles.
According to the Pentagon's acquisitions budget request, a larger MQ-9 Reaper budget means 12 new attack drones for the Air Force, while the RQ-4 Global Hawk program has seen the largest funding leap over 2014. The MQ-1 Predator, and RQ–7/RQ–11/ RQ-2 Shadow, Raven, and Blackjack platforms have had their acquisitions budgets cut, but overall, the Pentagon requested a $59.7 million increase in its drone-purchasing budget for 2015:
Research and development budgets show similar trends. The Global Hawk reconnaissance platform, which has had extra pressure put on it with the planned retirement of the U-2 spy plane, will get twice as much money from the Air Force for R&D, up to $244.5 million in 2015 from $120 million in 2014 and a similar boost from $375 million to $498 million from the Navy.
As DoDBuzz notes, the Global Hawk has had trouble flying in inclement weather, which may explain why the Navy, which has to deal with whatever the sea whips up, is spending more money developing the platform. The same article explains that the decision to save money by retiring legacy platforms like the U-2 and A-10 Warthog means a smaller Air Force, which may mean a reversal to previous drone cuts.
The purchase by the Air Force of 12 new MQ-9 Reapers, which previously replaced all the F-16s of the 174th Attack Wing, is a sign that the military believes in drones' future. Meanwhile, the Air Force is expected to reduce personnel from 503,400 to 483,000.
Of course, the Air Force also expects to buy 26 of the 34 total F-35 Joint Strike Fighters acquired by the military next year, so manned aircraft aren't completely on the chopping block. But old ones are: The Defense Department states in its budget overview that it expects to use drones to help fill gaps in capability created by the retirement of other aircraft.
Confirming previous reports that the Army will retire one of its favorite scout helicopters, the overview states that "the Kiowa Warrior will be divested, and the armed aerial scout mission will be assumed by the AH-64 Apache teamed with unmanned aerial vehicles." The report also notes that UAVs have helped fill gaps found across forces as each branch shrinks where it can.
“With our leadership's stern warnings about sequestration appearing to fall mostly on deaf ears in the Congress last year, one of secretary Hagel's top priorities is to prepare the department for an era when defense budgets could be significantly lower than expected, wanted or needed,” acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox said in a speech today, reflecting the Defense Department's general frustrations with the endless budget fights of the last couple years.
Cuts are certainly to be expected as the US find itself without wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, just as robots are coming for everyone else's jobs, so they will come for soldiers'. So in the face of such broad cuts, the growth of investment in some UAV platforms, as well as the expansion of some of their roles, is a nice peek into the drone future.