The Pentagon plans in the next four years to privatize and expand drone use in African war zones and other hot spots around the world, despite earlier reports that it would reduce deployments.
A plan to increase the number of daily drone flights by 50 percent will broaden intelligence and surveillance in North Africa, Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and the South China Sea, a senior defense official told the WallSreetJournal.
This will be the first significant increase in the U.S. drone program since 2011, WSJ reports.
Strikes by unmanned aircraft have killed 3,000 people or more according to estimates by nonpartisan groups, including in Somalia and Libya. This has been the most controversial part of the U.S. drone program, which grew under President Barack Obama, WSJ reports.
Over the last 10 years, demand for surveillance and intelligence missions by unmanned U.S. aircraft has grown. In 2004 there were as few as five drone flights a day. Now the Pentagon wants to expand the number of daily flights from 61 to as many as 90 by 2019.
Until now, the Air Force conducted U.S. drone operations almost exclusively. Air Force pilots and crews are burned out, officials said, prompting the Air Force leadership to ask the Pentagon for a reprieve.
Earlier this year Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter signed off on cuts to the U.S. drone program after it became apparent that the system was at breaking point.
Air Force officials said they would lose more drone pilots than they can train, NYTimes reported in June.
The Air Force said earlier it planned to cut back flights by armed surveillance drones from a peak of 65 a day to 60 a day by October “as it deals with the first serious exodus of the crew members who helped usher in the era of war by remote control,” NYTimes reported.
A significant number of the existing 1,200 drone pilots are becoming eligible to leave the Air Force and are opting to do so, WSJ reported. Many feel “undermanned and overworked,” with few opportunities for promotion.
A training program is producing only half the new pilots needed because the Air Force had to reassign instructors to the flight line.
Top Pentagon officials thought in 2014 the Air Force could reduce the number of daily drone flights but, said Col. James Cluff, “the world situation changed,” with the
emergence of the Islamic State, and the demand for the drones rose
The idea behind reducing flights was “to … allow some breathing room” to replenish the pool of instructors and recruits, Cluff told NYTimes.
The Air Force now flies most of the U.S. drone flights, but the new plan would draw on the Army, Special Operations Command and government contractors, WSJ reports.
The Pentagon envisions a combined effort that by 2019 would have the Air Force continue flying 60 drone flights a day, the Army flying as many as 16 and the military’s Special Forces Command flying as many as four. Government contractors would be hired to fly older Predator drones on as many as 10 flights a day — none of them strike missions, according to WSJ.
“The combatant commanders and the Department of Defense need to take a truly joint approach to delivering the kinds of capabilities that remotely piloted aircraft can provide,” said David Deptula, a retired Air Force three-star general, in a WSJ interview.
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