In a recent FoxtrotAlpha post, Tyler Rogoway criticized the Department of Defense, and the Air Force in particular, for its decision to retire the MQ-1 Predator by 2018. Rogoway argued the Air Force plan to replace the MQ-1 with the MQ-9 Reaper and reduce its Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) from 65 to 60 is poorly timed due to our current fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the Middle East. Additionally, he chides the Air Force for continuing to bleed valuable UAS manpower due to poor leadership and not having a more cost effective plan to scrap the MQ-1. Unfortunately, the recommendation to surge more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), even with low cost MQ-1 platforms, is the same thinking that put UAS manpower in an unsustainable position in the first place. Since manpower and budget are the limiting factor, maintaining excess UAS platforms would waste valuable funds that could be better utilized for recapitalization. The rise of Russia and China, not ISIS, is what makes today the perfect time for the Air Force to retire the MQ-1 and re-invest in a sustainable advanced UAS enterprise.
In August 2015, the Air Force confirmed its plan to retire the MQ-1 by 2018 and move them to the Air Force boneyard with no current plan to sell or recover them. The critical communication and control systems (Ku Band antennas and Ground Control stations) will be transferred to the MQ-9 fleet. The Air Force has been planning to replace the MQ-1 with the more advanced MQ-9 since 2007, as the MQ-9 offers significant improvements in external payload (3000lbs vs. 300lbs) and cruise speed (230mph vs 81mph). These advantages allow the MQ-9 to carry more advanced sensors to find targets more effectively and prosecute these targets with three times the firepower (MQ-1: 2 x Hellfire, MQ-9: 4 x Hellfire + 2 x 500lbs guided bombs) while getting to the target area almost three times as fast. According to the Air Force, this is accomplished with a marginal increase in cost per flight hour (MQ-1: $3,679, MQ-9: $4,762) and no increase in manpower.
The Air Force has been surging UAS operations for over 10 years due to the ever-growing need for ISR in our counter-insurgency conflicts. The rise of ISIS produced another spike in ISR demand, leading Rogoway to state it would be a poor time to reset the over-worked UAS community. Using this logic, there will never be a good time to build a sustainable advanced UAS enterprise. The Middle East Sunni-Shiite conflict has been raging for nearly 1500 years with no end in sight. However, senior leaders also agree ISIS is not an existential threat. In fact, incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, ranked the ISIS threat behind Russia, China and North Korea. Thus, I argue now is exactly the right time to be building our UAS force to be effective in 2020 against higher-threat state actors.
The Air Force’s reduction to 60 UAS CAPs, increasing incentive pay and leveraging Guard/Reserve manpower are all recently-established initiatives to reduce operations tempo, increase retention and build a sustainable force. During this Air Force reset, the Pentagon announced a 50% increase in total UAS CAPs over the next four years utilizing Special Operations Command, Army and contractor support. This Joint and Total Force support will result in more ISR provided with a workload spread out more evenly across the services.
Rogoway also suggested several other alternatives to sending MQ-1s to the boneyard that would seem to be better use of taxpayer money. In analyzing the alternatives, though, one must understand the full costs involved. The manpower to process, exploit and disseminate (PED) the UAS collected data is just as stressed as the operator manpower. In 2013, then Air Force Secretary Michael Donley stated, “The sensors are collecting more than we can go through.” Automating our old MQ-1s for low-priority imagery gathering would still require an extensive team of analysts for PED. That is the same limited manpower that the Air Force is trying to save. Forcing them to “pedal harder” on low-priority imaging would be counter-productive. A re-investment in a more advanced UAS, such as MQ-9, will enable the Air Force to be more cost-effective in the near-term while the manpower problem is fixed and automation technology, for both flying the aircraft and processing its information, is further developed.
Another suggestion is using MQ-1s to stimulate and confuse enemy air defenses in the opening days of a conflict. This is very promising concept and a major reason the Air Force has invested in low-cost Miniature Air Launched Decoys. However, utilizing MQ-1s for this mission presents a few problems. The Air Force would still require additional funding for the annual maintenance of the MQ-1s to ensure they remain flightworthy as well as an investment in automation technology for the new mission. Additionally, in the opening days of a conflict, airpower relies on principles of mass and surprise. Both of these principles are negated when you need to push an 80mph MQ-1 across the enemy border well ahead of the rest of the force travelling at 300-800mph. If military planners elected to use the MQ-1s independent of the strike packages, the MQ-1s would be easily identified by their airspeed. An advanced military would likely counter them with their lower-end tactical air defenses.
Finally, the most important aspect of the MQ-1 retirement is the budget savings that can be utilized on more advanced UASs. Retiring the MQ-1 is part of the Air Force’s plan to re-invest in a UAS fleet capable of multi-role missions against the full spectrum of threats. While part of that investment is in the more advanced MQ-9, the Air Force must also allocate funds towards next generation UAS technologies such as modularity, open architecture and autonomy.
In the past, the Air Force had to play catch-up to meet skyrocketing demand for unmanned ISR. The Air Force now recognizes the limiting factor is not airframes but the manpower requirement for operators and PED analysts. Now is the time to accept the risk of retiring the MQ-1 airframe to build a sustainable advanced UAS enterprise. If the Air Force misses this opportunity, they will again be playing catch-up in the future against a threat that can actually shoot back.
Major Ben “Leeroy” Donberg is an instructor pilot in the F-15E Strike Eagle with over 900 combat flying hours supporting Operations ENDURING FREEDOM, ODYSSEY DAWN and INHERENT RESOLVE. He is a graduate of the USAF Weapons Instructor Course and is currently serving an assignment as an Air Force Strategic Policy Fellow.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.