Congress is blocking the Air Force from retiring next year any of its most famous drone assassins, and is increasing procurement of a second bomb-dropping and surveillance unmanned aircraft.
The moves, in a joint defense budget by the House and Senate Armed Services committees, can be seen as a rejection of the Pentagon’s limited procurement plans for remotely piloted aircraft, including the storied terrorist-killing Predator and its Hellfire missiles.
“The committee believes that we have a deficit of ISR platforms around the world, one that is only going to grow,” said Claude Chafin, a spokesman for the House committee. ISR refers to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The committees took action on the fiscal 2015 budget after some lawmakers contended that the U.S.-led coalition is not deploying enough remotely piloted aircraft to battle the Islamic State terrorist army in Iraq and Syria.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a former Marine combatant in Iraq, said the U.S. has no combat troops on the ground to eye the enemy, so more RPAs are essential to spying and conducting airstrikes.
He said more MQ-1 Predators and the newer, higher-flying MQ-9 Reaper make sense, particularly in this type of fight. He said commanders need constant air surveillance to find on-the-move fighters for the Islamic State.
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He listed the benefits.
“No. 1, you wouldn’t have pilots flying over Syria,” he said. “No. 2, you could kill more bad guys. And No. 3, the obvious, is you would know where the bad guys are. You would know where they mass, especially when we don’t have people on the ground embedded with the units. When we don’t have our guys on the front lines, there is no other way to see the picture.”
Mr. Hunter’s district is in San Diego County, home to Predator and Reaper producer General Atomics. A Hunter staffer said there was wide support in the Senate-House defense conference to add more RPAs.
The 2015 conference bill, which is working its way through Congress, makes three major changes.
The legislation forbids the Air Force from retiring any of its Predators. It increases spending to $338 million to buy Reapers, which are capable of dropping satellite-guided bombs, conducting surveillance and firing missiles.
The money will procure about 20 Reapers. The Air Force requested 12 in its base budget, and 12 more Reapers in its separate overseas operations budget. The committees also added money for the Army to buy about 25 Predators instead of the requested 19.
The debate over RPAs is about culture as well as supply and demand. Air Force “fighter jocks” want to keep manned aircraft as the service’s centerpiece. Its priorities, defense staffers say, is not to focus on drones, but to provide money for planes that require pilots: the F-35 Lightning, a new aerial refueling tanker and a new long-range bomber.
Staffers say there are not enough RPAs to go around. Commanders want them not only in the Iraq-Syria theater, but also in Afghanistan, newly war-hot North Africa and the Korean Peninsula.
“Combatant commanders are kicking and screaming for more RPAs,” said a defense staffer. The source said Pentagon officials are conveying back-channel what commanders will not say in public: the Iraq War requires more RPAs.
The Air Force’s long-range plan is to retire the Predator to make way for more capable Reapers. The Air Force requested no new Predators for 2015.
Asked to respond to Congress about blocking Predator retirement, Lt. Col. Christopher Karns, an Air Force spokesman, said there were no plans to do that in 2015.
“The current environment is dynamic and complex,” Col. Karns said. “Therefore, it would be inappropriate to speculate on future divestment decisions. Combatant command requirements and fiscal realities need to be carefully considered. The Air Force is making every effort to balance resources and preserve combat capability in a tough fiscal environment.”
The Air Force has greatly increased its RPA fleets in the war on terrorism, nearly tripling its combat air patrol units to 65. Each includes Global Hawk, a spy drone, as well as the Predator and Reaper.
A Congressional Research Service report said the Air Force operates over 240 of those three RPAs.
Congress also has blocked the Air Force’s plan to retire all A-10 Warthogs, designed to fly low and strike the enemy in close combat with American forces.
U.S. Central Command, which runs the war against the Islamic State, says it has 350 manned aircraft and RPAs at its disposal. Britain, whose troops left Afghanistan in October, transferred some of its Reapers to Iraq, where they quickly carried out airstrikes.
Central Command says RPAs have conducted about 15 percent of the coalition’s nearly 1,200 strikes.
Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for Air Forces Central Command, said ISR assets are being used where needed.
“As war fighters, we use the personnel and resources allocated to us in order to execute the missions we’ve been assigned,” Col. Sholtis said. “We’re using our existing ISR capabilities to provide prioritized 24/7 coverage of areas in Iraq and Syria where we’re supporting indigenous ground forces or refining our situational awareness. As we’ve added coalition ISR capability into the mix over time, we’ve been able to put it to effective use.”
RPAs, for example, played a major role in the retaking of Mosul dam in northern Iraq. The planes sent live video to a joint U.S.-Iraqi command center that coordinated airstrikes to support the Iraqi government’s ground troops.
The air campaign for the most part seeks to whittle away at Islamic State forces and equipment while protecting certain sites from further terrorist conquest. The self-styled caliphate and its 30,000 combatants now control wide sections of eastern Syria, and northern and western Iraq.
The U.S. has sent to date 1,650 troops to Iraq as trainers and advisers, positioning themselves no lower than brigade headquarters. President Obama has prohibited Americans from accompanying Iraqis into ground combat.
Mr. Hunter said that, when Islamic State fighters move, the coalition needs the eyes of RPAs in the air as frequently as possible.
“That’s so easy,” he said. “That doesn’t take a moment of clarity. That’s a pretty easy thing. I would think a lot of people in DOD and military leadership would be thinking the same thing. I’m not sure why they are not doing it. Why not have eyes on these guys all the time?”