The drones that have proved so useful at hunting al Qaeda are "useless" in nearly every other battlefield scenario, says a top Air Force general. So, for the first time, the Air Force is proposing culling the fleet of little, propeller-driven MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones in favor of stealthier, faster aircraft.
This is because the slow, low-flying drones that killed terrorists in the last decade's wars have little chance of surviving against an enemy armed with even basic air defenses. Faced with declining defense budgets, Air Force officials want to retire many of the low-tech drones.
"Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment," said Gen. Mike Hostage, chief of the air service's Air Combat Command, during the Air Force Association's annual conference outside of Washington.
"Today … I couldn't put [a Predator or Reaper] into the Strait of Hormuz without having to put airplanes there to protect it," said the four-star general. This week, the Air Force's chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, revealed that an F-22 -- the planet's most sophisticated stealth fighter -- intercepted Iranian F-4 Phantom jets that were closing in on a U.S. Predator drone over the strait last March. In November 2012, Iranian Su-25 ground attack jets fired on, and missed, an American Predator over the strait.
In 2011, the Pentagon ordered the Air Force to have enough MQ-1s and MQ-9s to fly up to 65 combat air patrols (CAPs) around the world by this year. Each CAP consists of up to four drones. Even as the service worked to make this happen, it questioned the order, saying there was no official requirement stating the military's need for what many in the air service believe are little more than flying lawn mowers.
"We're trying to convince [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] that the 65 challenge -- while made sense to the people who gave it to us when it was given, and we dutifully went after it -- is not the force structure the nation needs or can afford in an anti-access, area-denial environment," said Hostage.
"Anti-access, area-denial" is the military's term for enemies armed with advanced radars, missiles, fighter jets, and electronic warfare systems meant to keep American aircraft, missiles, and ships far from their borders.
U.S. military planners expect the Air Force's ability to "stare" at targets 24/7 using its drone fleet to be there in future conflicts, said Hostage. "But they want it in a contested environment, and we can't do it currently."
MQ-1s and MQ-9s "have limited capability" against even basic air defenses, said Hostage. "We're not talking deep over mainland China; we're talking any contested airspace. Pick the smallest, weakest country with the most minimal air force -- [it] can deal with a Predator."
To keep its ability to stare at targets, the Air Force will have to buy stealthier, faster reconnaissance planes or figure out a way to look at an enemy from beyond the reach of its defenses.
The Air Force's top spy, Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, echoed Hostage's comments, saying that after the war in Afghanistan ends, he wants the Air Force to get rid of a number of Predators and Reapers and replace them with stealthier spy planes.
"My argument would be, we can't afford to keep all of this capability, so we're going to have to bring some of it down," said Otto while discussing the 65 Predator and Reaper CAPs after a speech at the same conference.
This will free cash to invest in high-end drones and other spy gear that can be used against heavily defended targets, according to Otto.
"I think the place to take risk is in the permissive environment," said Otto of where he wants the service to spend its limited cash for buying new intelligence-gathering tools such as drones.
Once major U.S. involvement in Afghanistan ends in 2014, Otto may scale back the service's intelligence-gathering efforts -- including its drones -- from the fight against terrorism and refocus much of it on high-end threats posed by other nations. This will leave much of the service's anti-terrorism intelligence work to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and its fleet of Predators and Reapers, according to the three-star general.
This shift in intelligence resources may allow Hostage, who is in charge of the forces that fly the majority of the Air Force's drones, to be free to focus on replacing the Predators and Reapers.
"I need to shift the demographics of the ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] fleet," said Hostage.
"We have ways" of doing that, added Hostage, of his plans to modernize the unmanned spy-plane fleet.
"I'm not gonna tell you exactly how I'm gonna do it, but yes, I'm looking at different ways of doing it with flying platforms [and] with non-flying platforms -- a family of capabilities," said the general. "We have shown our joint partners a way of war that they're not going to want us to back away from, so we have to have that ability and my current fleet of 65 Predator-Reapers is not the answer."
He did, however, say that the stealthy spy jet, used to snoop on Iran's nuclear facilities and Osama bin Laden's hideout, is "absolutely one of my capabilities" that can be used for riskier surveillance missions. The RQ-170 is a secret Air Force drone that was spotted throughout the last decade operating out of the U.S. air base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Service leaders acknowledged its existence in late 2009 after numerous pictures emerged of the mysterious aircraft at the Afghan base. The plane was believed to be used to spy on Afghanistan's neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, since there is no need for a stealth plane in the U.S.-controlled skies over Afghanistan. These suspicions were confirmed in 2011, when an RQ-170 crashed almost completely intact inside Iran.
This means that the plane can't necessarily be counted on to evade enemy defenses that are being developed. The Iranians, along with their allies, have had a chance to study the jet and learn how to track it. Furthermore, much of the technology used in the RQ-170 is nearly a decade old, meaning that it might be obsolete by the next decade.
Hostage said he needs new spy planes by the beginning of the 2020s if the Air Force is to stay ahead of potential rivals like China or Russia that are fielding -- and exporting -- advanced air-defense radars, missiles, electronic warfare gear, and stealth fighters.
Making things more complicated is the fact that simply fielding new spy planes won't cut it against modern defenses, said Hostage. Instead, DOD needs to look at all of its intelligence-gathering methods -- cyber, airborne, sea, land, and even human-based -- to figure out how these will be used to spy on rivals with advanced defenses.
U.S. Air Force