The Pentagon is laying out a road map for the future of its drone fleet, which includes unmanned planes with fuel-filled wings that can fly more sophisticated weapons systems to more isolated hot spots and smaller drones capable of operating in unison to swarm an enemy.
A strategic document known as the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Vector takes a 25-year look from 2013 to 2038. The 101-page wish list of sorts, not bound by budget restrictions, offers insight into where the Air Force wants to expand technologies.
Some of the developments could be realized within the next several months. Contractors expect to test a reconfigured medium-altitude MQ-9 Reaper drone — a staple of the Pentagon's intelligence and surveillance fleet — in which fuel compartments are housed in the wings, extending flight time from 27 hours to 42 hours. That means the unmanned aircraft can fly over countries where a minimal U.S. military presence makes landing and refueling difficult.
"Now that the bases are farther away in Afghanistan and they have tremendous distances to reach in Africa or across the Pacific, this technology is pertinent," said Chris Pehrson, director of strategic development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which is developing the retrofitted aircraft.
The new wings, which are larger than the wings of a standard Reaper, also would allow the unmanned aircraft to require less runway for takeoffs, Mr. Pehrson said. If the system proves operable, it would free up the bottom of the drone — where fuel tanks are currently positioned — allowing the attachment of additional, more advanced sensors, he said.
Navy Cmdr. Amy Derrick-Frost, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said the Pentagon has contracted General Atomics to build external fuel pods to extend the flight range of the MQ-9 Reaper, but Pentagon officials have yet to embrace the plan for fuel-filled wings.
Beyond maximizing the capabilities of its large drones, the Pentagon is looking to reduce the size of its smallest unmanned aircraft, such as the hand-launched Wasp Block III, so they can carry more sophisticated sensor payloads at high altitudes, the road map shows. The 2-foot drones, which are tossed into the air with the help of an electrically powered tractor propeller resembling a slingshot, then will be ready to pool their capabilities and swarm an enemy with the help of overarching system-control software.
Because the strategic document doesn't consider price tags, it remains to be seen whether an austere budget environment will allow for costly retrofitting or other aircraft upgrades — a reality Air Force officials readily acknowledge.
While military officials are constantly "scanning for game-changing technologies," they also have to be selective, said Col. Kenneth Callahan, who oversees the Air Force's expanding drone capabilities.
"The problem is you also don't want to go out and buy every shiny object that flashes in front of you," he said.
Defense contractors have long been tracking the items on the Pentagon's wish list for its drone fleet beyond the war in Afghanistan.
Dan Goure, a national security analyst and vice president of the Arlington-based nonprofit think tank the Lexington Institute, said military officials could have worse problems than a parade of contractors presenting them with dazzling technologies.
"If they really have everybody that's coming in with something that's game-changing, then the guys had better sit back and enjoy the ride," he said.
The Pentagon has expressed interest in cutting-edge technology from drone sensors.
Defense officials currently rely on a sensor collection that ranges from an "all-seeing eye" designed to monitor wide swaths of land to infrared technology that can locate specific objects such as a lost truck or the remnants of a plane crash.
Within the past few years, defense contractors have developed sensors with hyperspectral imaging, which uses satellite technology to monitor light fragments that make it possible to identify freshly overturned dirt and other signs of enemy movement. The Pentagon has put some of those sensors onto its MQ-1 Predator drones, the hunter-killer sister of the MQ-9 Reaper.
But acquiring too many unmanned aircraft assets could distract the Pentagon from a larger, more pertinent issue, said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force's first deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Gen. Deptula said the Pentagon's military services should focus less on sharpening the weapons in its postwar toolbox and pay more attention to effectively sharing information that its surveillance tools collect.
Also, the Pentagon needs to revise its arcane strategic approach of supporting troops on the ground by building up a cache of medium-altitude drones, Gen. Deptula said. The drones are useful, but the number of them available to conduct a rotation of "orbits" in the sky is far less important than the amount of information that those drones need to be producing and communicating.
"The Department of Defense needs to evolve. The reality is that the solider, sailor, airman or marine does not care about orbits," he said. "What they care about is the degree of information that they are receiving."
There is also much debate about whether the military should continue to spend money on refining the weapons in its war chest or invest in technology that can respond to a wider array of hostile situations, Mr. Goure said.
"The really big next question is going to be, 'Can you design one for a high-threat environment?' And particularly, 'Can you design a combat drone — not a fighter, but a combat drone — that can go out in that kind of environment and do a combat mission?'"
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