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)
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