How Vulnerable is the American Drone Fleet?
The highly controversial nuclear negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program were politicized a bit
The recent loss of an American Predator drone over Syria raises several questions. Has Syria decided to deny its airspace to American drones? Is Syria will be trying to capture an American drone for its (or Russia’s) desire to learn more about the American drone’s secrets? Or, does this indicate a very vulnerable part of America’s warfighting capability?
On Wednesday, Syria announced that it had downed an American MQ-1 Predator drone over the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of President Bashar al-Assad. “Syrian air defenses brought down a hostile US surveillance aircraft over north Latakia,” it said, without providing further details.
The US military confirmed that it had lost communication with an unarmed Predator drone over northwest Syria on Tuesday and was looking into the claims it was brought down. Reports say the aircraft took off from Turkey while others pointed to a base in Jordan.
If confirmed, it would be the first time that Syrian forces have attacked a US aircraft since the coalition fighting the Islamic State began raids against ISIS in Syria in September. However, the strikes in Syria have largely been focused on Aleppo and Raqqa provinces, where ISIS strongholds were.
However, ISIS has been relatively absent from Latakia, which means the Predator probably wasn’t involved in the allied effort against ISIS. In, fact, this drone mission may have been to carry out a reconnaissance on pro-Assad forces in the area. This, in and of itself, may be the reason for Syria downing the aircraft.
There could be another reason for the strike against the drone. As America’s drone force has become more important, undoubtedly more and more countries are interested in getting their hands on a drone in order to learn its secrets. Obviously Syria would be interested as well as Russia, who is likely facing increased US drone activity in Eastern Europe.
Although the Predator that was downed was the newest American drone, it would reveal much, especially on how the controllers back in the US communicate with the drone and fly it. This could lead to more effective anti-drone defenses.
According to the Air Force Times, the Air Force is in the process of phasing out Predators in favor of the newer MQ-9 Reaper. The Air force’s proposed budget for fiscal 2017 would raise the number of Reaper combat air patrols from 55 to 60 within a 24-hour period while lowering the number of combat air patrols Predators fly from 10 to five per day.
Reapers can carry eight times the payload of Predators and armed with a mixture of Hellfire missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or smart bombs, said Benjamin Newell, a spokesman for Air Combat Command.
“MQ-9 is also equipped with Synthetic Aperture Radar,” Newell said in a Feb. 12 email to Air Force Times. “MQ-9 has one-and-a-half the range of an MQ-1, can cruise nearly three times as fast and carries six times more fuel.”
The Vulnerable American Drone Fleet
Although there is no information at this time about what shot down the drone, the fact is that Syrian aircraft, static or Mobile Syrian SAMs, or even shoulder launched air defense missiles could easily bring down an American drone.
This brings up an interesting fact – although the US is relying more and more on drones for fighting, they rely upon American air superiority or an enemy without any air defense capability.
Air Force officials have long warned that the current generation of remotely piloted aircraft cannot survive airspace that is defended by enemy aircraft and ever-more sophisticated anti-aircraft systems.
According to the Defense News, a Predator armed with a Stinger reportedly got into a brief dogfight with an Iraqi plane in 2003 — and lost.
In 2013, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command said remotely piloted aircraft sometimes needed to be protected by fighter escorts. That September, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh jokingly recounted one incident in which an F-22 pilot warned off two Iranian F-4s that were trying to intercept an unmanned aircraft over the Persian Gulf.
“After he rejoined on them, flew underneath their aircraft to check out their weapons load without them knowing he was there, and then pulled up on their left wing and then called them and said, ‘You really ought to go home,” Welsh said on Sept. 17, 2013, at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference.
But Gen. Mike Hostage, then head of Air Combat Command, was much more serious when he told reporters at the same conference that Predators and Reapers are “useless” in contested airspace, Foreign Policy reported.
“Today … I couldn’t put [a Predator or Reaper] into the Strait of Hormuz without having to put airplanes there to protect it,” Foreign Policy quoted Hostage as saying on Sept. 19, 2013.
Clearly, the days of flying drones in uncontested airspaces like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen are gone.
Another problem is that there are far too few drone pilots for the number of missions required for the drone force. “The biggest problem is training,” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the Air Force Times. “We can only train about 180 people a year and we need 300 a year trained – and we’re losing about 240 from the community each year. Training 180 and losing 240 is not a winning proposition for us.
The Air Force had expected to reduce the number of combat air patrols that RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) pilots fly, but the service had to reverse course when the U.S. began airstrikes in Iraq and Syria last year, increasing the strain on the RPA community, Welsh said. Officials admit that the Air Force can’t sustain the current level of drone missions indefinitely.
Drone pilots currently work 14-hour days for six days in a row. Where the pilot of a manned aircraft like the F-16 might fly 200 to 300 hours per year, a drone pilot is “flying” an average of 900 to 1,100 hours. Given the long hours and the fact that drone pilots aren’t promoted as quickly as manned aircraft pilots, many are choosing to retire from the military.
In order to relieve some of the pressure, the Air Force will be retraining about 60 Predator pilots to fly Reapers next year.
The pressure to fly more drone missions has also taken a toll on the manned Air Force fleet. As the demand for drone pilots increased, the Air Force pulled pilots from F-16 and F-15 aircraft and sent them to Nevada, where the drone fleet is piloted.
Currently 38 manned aircraft pilots are flying drones and are scheduled to leave by this summer. This has forced the Air Force to beg them to remain and not rotate back to manned aircraft squadrons.
Another problem is that Air Force pilots prefer flying manned aircraft and forcing them to remain as drone pilots may make them consider leaving the Air Force and become pilots for commercial airlines.
The stress isn’t just limited to the pilots. Each drone on station requires three more on active service – one flying towards the station to relieve the drone, and two more undergoing maintenance. And, that group of four drones must be supported by186 people. Fifty-nine people launch, land and repair the Predators at airfields near the actual combat zones, in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Djibouti. Forty-five members live and work at an air base in the United States, flying the drones via Ku-band satellite.
Also, don’t forget that bringing a drone into the Air Force inventory costs taxpayers about $200 million.
The reality is that this problem started long ago and failure to rectify it has weakened the US Air Force. The White House’s preference for unmanned aircraft to fight the war on terror pushed up demand for drones, while the Air Force remained focused on manned aircraft and pilots.
The result is a massive drone fleet that doesn’t have enough pilots or maintenance crews. And, although they are much cheaper to fly, they are very vulnerable and require a manned aircraft to escort it in many theaters of operation. At the same time, there aren’t enough manned aircraft pilots to escort the drones because they have been pulled off to fly more drones.
It is clear that the Pentagon has painted itself into a corner. If the goal is to provide air support for the war on ISIS, drone aircraft aren’t enough. The drone fleet must be adequately supported with manpower, especially pilots. And, since many areas in the Middle East have air defense systems, manned aircraft must be on hand to escort the drones.
This brings up the diplomatic issue. While Syria can shoot down a Predator aircraft without creating a diplomatic storm, escorting drones with manned, armed aircraft present much more trouble. Will Syria allow an armed F-16 to fly over Latakia as it escorts a drone? Or, would Syria shoot it down? What would the F-16 do if a SAM is fired at the drone?
Clearly the drone war has escalated and the White House must take steps to clarify its mission.
10 Objectives for the FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act
By Steven P. Bucci, Dean Cheng, Brian Slattery, Theodore R. Bromund, Michaela Dodge, Luke Coffey, David Inserra and Charles “Cully” Stimson
March 16, 2015
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is a central piece of legislation for Congress each year. The NDAA is one of the last remaining bills that enjoys true bipartisan consensus, in part because Congress understands the critical need to set defense policies and guidelines for national security. The FY 2016 NDAA will continue in this tradition. The NDAA does, however, face a range of problems. A team of Heritage Foundation national security experts have compiled a set of 10 objectives—addressing issues from military morale to missile defense to Taiwan and China—that Congress should support.
Tunisia’s Museum Attack
By Haim Malka
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 18, 2015
Gunmen killed at least 17 foreigners and two Tunisians in the heart of the capital this morning. The attack took place at the Bardo Museum, a national symbol that is part of the heavily guarded parliamentary complex in downtown Tunis. The stories coming out of Tunisia in recent months had been encouraging: the country held orderly and successful parliamentary and presidential elections in which winners and losers alike accepted the results with equanimity. In the background, militants have waged a low-level insurgency in the mountains on Tunisia’s western border since 2012, killing scores of military and security personnel. The attack against a high-profile tourist destination in the middle of Tunis raises the conflict to a new level. It complicates the new Tunisian government’s efforts to attract foreign investment and raises questions about the efficacy of its ongoing counterterrorism campaign.
The Real Strategic Goal in Iraq and Syria: How Do You Bring Lasting Stability?
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
March 16, 2015
One of the ironies of a steadily more partisan Washington is that its politicians and policymakers continue to call for “strategy” without looking beyond the military dimension. One way to lose a war is to lose sight of the objective, and there seems to be an open contest between the administration and the Congress to see who can do the best job of ignoring the objective. The key question in both Iraq and in Syria—and in what is far too often treated as a “war against ISIL”—is how do you bring any meaningful stability to either country? Military victories are at best a means to that end and can actually make things worse if they are not tied to a set of grand strategic goals.
What Is Behind China’s Growing Attention to Afghanistan?
By Zhao Huasheng
March 8, 2015
China has also continued to hold bilateral and trilateral meetings on Afghanistan with other countries in the region. In February 2015, following three earlier sets of talks, the first round of the China-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue was held in Kabul. In 2014, talks among China, Russia, and India took place, as did a second round of talks between China and Iran. In past years, China has also held bilateral talks on Afghanistan with India and Pakistan. China is in a strong position to help coordinate between Afghanistan and its neighbors, which all have an especially important role to play in promoting security in Afghanistan. A consensus among these surrounding countries on their positions and policies would help to ensure a stable future for Afghanistan. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional group that includes most of Afghanistan’s neighbors and nearby countries, is an important multilateral platform for coordinating policies toward Afghanistan.
Congress Must Derail Obama’s Iran Debacle
By Ilan Berman
American Foreign Policy Council
March 18, 2015
The National Interest
You wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media, but President Obama has an Iran problem. His administration has wagered – and wagered big – on the idea of a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. But the effort is increasingly unpopular, and a hard sell among the American electorate. That’s the conclusion of a new poll conducted by Fox News, which found that 84 percent of the more than 1,000 respondents surveyed believed the current deal being negotiated with Iran is a “bad idea” because it only delays – rather than dismantles – Iran’s path to the bomb. Moreover, 57 percent of those polled said that the United States has not applied sufficient pressure on Iran, while 65 percent supported the idea of using force against the Islamic Republic if necessary.
Turkey’s New Missiles of October: Defense Modernization or Political Statement?
By Ahmet K. Han and Can Kasapoğlu
German Marshall Fund
March 12, 2015
Ankara is giving mixed signals regarding the award of an upcoming missile defense system. Will it be awarded to a defense contractor in a NATO ally country, as has traditionally been the case, or will it be awarded to a Chinese company? The authors argue that some Turkish decision-makers may not fully understand the ramifications of this decision on new and old alliances.
2014 Gaza War Assessment: The New Face of Conflict
Gaza Conflict Task Force
Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs
Battles have been fought for millennia in cities, amid large civilian populations. Many wars have been waged against unconventional adversaries willing to kill their opponent’s civilians and hide among their own. Misinformation has been disseminated and the mantle of justice claimed in the service of countless causes. However, the 2014 Gaza War featured a hybrid non-state force – Hamas – that perhaps uniquely combined four elements: Acting with reckless disregard for civilian safety, if not deliberately putting them in harm’s way; Distorting internationally-recognized legal standards to exploit legal protections afforded civilians and the casualties caused by this exploitation; Portraying its opponent, through an information operations campaign, as legally culpable for what were lawful, defensive responses to aggression; and Securing advantageous pressure from the international community on its opponent to terminate legitimate defensive military action.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor