Killer Drones Now Officially Fighters (Air Force Steps Back from the Edge)

07.04.09

Categorie: Air, Reality Check, Robots |

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It happened without many people noticing. While increasing costs and diminishing utility sapped Pentagon support for the traditional jet fighter — leading to a shrinking and increasingly geriatric fleet — unmanned combat aircraft improved by giant leaps and bounds, rising to meet the challenges of irregular warfare. With quiet engines, long loiter time, sophisticated sensors and precision weapons, a comparatively small force of drones could do the same work as an old-school fighter squadron, better and cheaper.

Today in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody is begging for more fighter jets to fight insurgents. But everyone wants more Predator and Reaper drones.

The Pentagon under Robert Gates appreciated this. The Air Force’s old senior leadership, hung up on the mythical glory of pilot-on-pilot dogfighting, did not. The Air Force made more manned F-22 fighters its number-one priority, instead of more and better drones.

But reality has a way of overcoming nostalgia. This week Gates announced deep cuts to the Air Force’s manned fighter fleet. More than 200 old fighters will retire early. The stealthy, $150-million F-22 Raptor will end production at just 187 examples, 200 short of what the Air Force wanted just a year ago, but could never afford. The future Air Force manned fighter fleet will include only 1,900 F-22s and F-35s, versus today’s 2,500 F-22s, F-15s, F-16s and A-10s.

But now the Pentagon is directing the Air Force to include $20-million MQ-9 Reaper drones, pictured, in its fighter count. “Heretofore, they were not included in the analytic side of the mission space that the F-16, F-15 and F-15E were occupying,” Joint Chiefs vice James Cartwright, a Marine general, told Aviation Week. “Given the conflicts we are in and are likely to be in the next couple of years are conflicts in which being on station for a long period of time and not delivering maximum loads every sortie — those platforms [Reapers] do, in fact, give you a qualitative edge.”

So it’s official: Reapers are now fighters. The first fighters without a pilot on board.
The Air Force has around 30 Reapers in its inventory, in addition to some 200 smaller Predators. This combined fleet will double in the next couple years. Reaper production could eventually reach the hundreds of airframes before improved drone designs replace it.

Despite resistance, Gates has charted the Air Force’s future. The F-22 and F-35 will be important contributors for decades, but they will not be allowed to suck resources from unmanned systems. Expect explosive proliferation of unmanned aircraft for every Air Force mission, eventually including air-to-air combat. We might even see a version of the Navy’s UCAS-D jet-fighter robot, in Air Force colors.

(Photo: BW Jones)

Related:
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Analysts: Buy Fighters, or Die
Boeing Unveils New “Stealthy” F-15
Getting the Most from Your New F-22
F-22s to Darfur? Not so Fast …
Advocating a Systemic View of Air Superiority
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A U.S. Navy F-22? Don’t Hold Your Breath
Nearly 100,000 Jobs Depend on the F-22? Not Really
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10 Responses to “Killer Drones Now Officially Fighters (Air Force Steps Back from the Edge)”

  1. ajay says:

    a) A-10s count as fighters?
    b) Not only the first USAF unmanned fighter, but the first prop-driven fighter since, what, the P-51?

  2. David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/08/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  3. [...] After unveiling plans on Monday to cut manned fighters and double the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of armed Predator (pictured) and Reaper drones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs vice James Cartwright dropped a bombshell. From now on, they said on Tuesday, Reapers would be considered fighters, alongside F-15s, F-16s, F-22s and F-35s. The new designation acknowledges Reaper’s F-16-class payload, sophisticated sensors and weapons and long loiter time … and helps legitimize the emerging robotic Air Force. [...]

  4. [...] When things were at their worst, I and other proposed disbanding the Air Force. Now a former Harvard fellow has revived that proposal. But consider the major changes in Air Force plans in just the last year: * Investment in super-effective killer drones — Predators, Reapers and (potentially) Avengers — continues to grow [...]

  5. [...] Instead of seeing the cuts to manned fighters as a death-knell for the Air Force, Gates is encouraging them to use this as an opportunity for change, into a smaller but still lethal arm of the Pentagon. Utilizing the enhanced capabilities of unmanned air vehicles, UAVs, the service would make itself useful in the numerous COIN conflicts we are currently engaged in, and likely will continue to contend with in future Hybrid Wars against low tech asymmetric threats. Axe continues: While spending on manned aircraft has slipped in recent years, investment in unmanned aircraft has grown. In 2010, the Air Force will buy 24 MQ-9 Reaper armed drones, for roughly $20 million apiece. The USAF is on track to have 50 “orbits” of Reapers and smaller Predator drones, pictured, by 2011 — double what the air service thought it would have, just a couple years ago. One orbit represents three or four drones, plus their ground stations. In a dramatic acknowledgment of the increasing importance of drones, in April, Marine Corps General James Cartwright, the vice chairmen of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said Reapers would now be counted as fighters. [...]

  6. [...] While the Predators are currently deployed on the Southern US border and in Iraq and Afghanistan, General Atomics recently unveiled the prototype of the next generation of the Predator, called Predator C. Even more frighteningly, General Atomics Reapers are now considered as fighters by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. [...]

  7. [...] F-35, of course. * General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper drone, which last year the Pentagon said should be counted as a fighter, for it performs certain kinds of ground-attack missions better than any existing aircraft. * The [...]

  8. [...] Despite Risks War is Boring: “Predator C” Robo-Fighter Takes Flight War is Boring: Killer Droves Now Officially Fighters (Air Force Steps Back From The Edge) Offiziere.ch: The Emerging U.S. Counter-Insurgency Air Force War is Boring: Obama Administration [...]

  9. [...] we count medium-size armed drones — and some flag officers said we should — the number of fighter-class warplanes in production grows to at least eight. (For the [...]

  10. [...] we count medium size armed drones—and some flag officers said we should—the number of fighter class warplanes in production grows to at least eight. (For the record, [...]

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