US Air Force reveals $3bn drone expansion plan

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone © Efren Lopez / U.S. Air Force
Doubling the number of pilots and support staff and expanding to more bases around the US are two parts of the Air Force’s plan to meet the Pentagon’s goal of expanding drone operations. The $3 billion wish list still needs congressional approval.

The plan was announced on Thursday, after months of soliciting feedback from the USAF’s drone pilots and support staff, who have complained about being overworked and underappreciated. It envisions adding 75 MQ-9 Reaper drones to the current fleet of 175 Reapers and 150 MQ-1 Predators, increasing the number of squadrons from eight to 17, and adding up to 3,500 new pilots and support staff, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Currently, most of the USAF drone operations are flown out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The base, about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, has no housing facilities, so the 3,325 military personnel and civilian contractors working round-the-clock shifts must commute.

Another reason for the expansion is the rising need for surveillance flights, according to General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of USAF’s Air Combat Command (ACC), which oversees drone operations.

“Right now, 100% of the time, when a MQ-1 or MQ-9 crew goes in, all they do is combat,” said Carlisle. “So we really have to build the capacity.”

Another part of the plan would see the command structure in the largely improvised drone program brought in line with the more traditional chain of command within the USAF.

Of the planned 3,500 additional airmen, 600 to 700 will be officers and the rest will be enlisted, ACC spokeswoman Major Genieve David told Defense News. The expansion will include pilots, sensor operators, maintenance crews and intelligence analysts.

Rather than concentrating all drone operations at Creech AFB, the Air Force is considering splitting the program to multiple facilities around the US and maybe even overseas. Matching shifts to time zones would reduce the stress on the operators, USAF officials have told reporters.

The bases currently considered for the drone program expansion are Beale AFB near Sacramento, California; Davis-Monahan AFB near Tucson, Arizona; Langley AFB near Newport News, Virginia and the joint base Pearl Harbor-Hickam near Honolulu, Hawaii. The Pentagon is also considering placing a drone operations center at Lakenheath, a Royal Air Force base in Suffolk, England, the LA Times reported. However, that would require a basing agreement with the UK authorities.

In August, the Pentagon revealed plans to significantly expand its drone operations by 2019, going from 61 flights a day to around 90. The USAF would fly 60 flights a day by itself, with the Army flying up to 16 flights. The Special Operations Command would be responsible for four flights and contractors for as many as ten. These numbers do not include the drone flights operated by the CIA.

In October, a whistleblower from inside the drone program revealed the tactics and targeting methods used by the US military in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, protesting the reliance on unreliable signal intelligence and the civilian death tolls. During one five-month period of operations in Afghanistan, for example, nearly 90 percent of people killed were not the intended targets – but the Pentagon would still classify them as “enemy killed in action (EKIA),” unless there was specific proof that the male casualties were not terrorists.

“Anyone caught in the vicinity is guilty by association,” the whistleblower said.