WASHINGTON - The U.S. military plans to more than triple its inventory of high-altitude, armed and unarmed drones capable of 24-hour patrols by 2020.
The long-range aviation plan delivered to Congress Feb. 2 calls for 800 high-altitude drones, up from 220 currently. "Recent operational experience and combat commander demands" are driving this "significant growth," according to the plan submitted.
"We can't get enough drones," General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, which includes the Afghanistan and Iraq war theaters, said in a speech Jan. 19.
Of the military's 6,819 unmanned aircraft, only the high- altitude "long-endurance" drones can provide ground commanders wide-ranging, round-the-clock surveillance and the opportunity for instant strike.
The new planes will include Global Hawks built by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. and Predator and Reaper drones built by privately held, San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. The Air Force uses those three model drones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Northrop also will build its new "broad-area'' surveillance aircraft for the Navy.
Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co., New York-based L-3 Communications Holdings, Inc., White Plains, New York-based ITT Corp. and privately held, Sparks, Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. are leading providers of the sensors the planes use to spot ground targets.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stressed the need to improve intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. His predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, considered unmanned aircraft a key weapons program for "transforming" the military.
The U.S. military currently flies about 39 combat-air patrols for 24 hours each over Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula. The Pentagon has said it would increase the patrols to 50 a day in the next two years and 65 by 2013.
U.S. unmanned aircraft strikes within Pakistani territory are managed by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The new aviation plan projects spending for all aircraft to increase to $29 billion by 2020 from about $22 billion in fiscal 2011, an average of 3 percent annual growth adjusted for inflation.
By comparison, the total proposed defense budget for fiscal 2011 represents real growth of 1.8 percent over this year, and spending is projected to grow an average of only 1 percent annually over the following four years, Pentagon Comptroller Robert Hale said this week.
Attention has focused on the Air Force's drone program, but the aviation plan notes that the Navy through 2020 "will focus on accelerating the development of carrier-based unmanned aircraft," with a demonstration planned for 2013.
The Pentagon's plan calls for a "sizeable" investment in the Navy program that could reach $7 billion in fiscal 2020. Northrop Grumman won a $635 million demonstration contract for this program in 2007.
The Pentagon's new Quadrennial Defense Review stressed the importance of the Navy having long-range drones, and that emphasis translated into about $2 billion extra between 2013- 2015, Rear Admiral William Burke, who led the service's review, told reporters today.
"It got a big push in this QDR and in the budget," Burke said. "There was a little bit" of money for the program a year ago "but nowhere near" the amount now planned.
The new drones "will allow us to have more range from our aircraft carriers," Burke said. "That gives us either the ability to operate from farther away or more" combat power "once you are there."
Editors: Bill Schmick, Don Frederick