As the war in Afghanistan winds down, many commanders are asking what is going to happen to the large fleet of drones that have patrolled the skies, according to the Air Force Times:
Some 16 months ago, as the U.S. surge in Afghanistan was in full swing, the Air Force was ordered to get to 65 drone combat air patrols. Each CAP represents a UAV on station 24/7 and requires about four aircraft to make happen. Currently, the Air Force has 258 Predators and Reapers staffing 60 CAPs. There are almost 300 Reapers still on order, largely to replace the Predators.
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Now the U.S. is drawing its forces down. For many conventional units, the end of war means a return home. F-16s will go back to Aviano or Eglin or Edwards. Infantry units will return to their homes at Fort Drum, Campbell or Bragg. But most of the Air Force’s midsize UAVs have no home bases. They’ve always been deployed.
While making new homes at American bases for the drones is an option, current regulations would make flying difficult. Finding international homes for drones is the only way to prevent them from being trashed, but each command comes with it’s own issues.
Take North Korea.
"If we fly a Predator over their territory, they may see it as an act of war and they’ll take it down," said Joe Detrani, a former envoy for talks with Pyongyang, and who oversaw intelligence collection over North Korea when he was at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
U.S. commanders are acutely aware of this.
"We are now shifting to a theater where there’s an adversary out there who’s going to have a vote on whether I have that staring eye over the battlefield 24/7/365," Gen. Mike Hostage, who leads the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, told a think tank audience last year. "And I’m pretty certain they’re not going to allow that to happen."
Drones could be of use in Latin America, where states are attempting to crack down on illegal trafficking of narcotics. However, Latin American countries take sovereignty very seriously and drones don’t have a great reputation around the world.
"It’s hard to imagine a lot of countries where this would fly in Latin America," said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a progressive think tank. "Certainly the optics of it for the population would be terrible. … Every leftist politician would include it in their speeches."
The U.S. has already deployed small ScanEagle drones in Colombia. But that led to a small embarrassment in 2009, when FARC guerrillas triumphantly claimed to have shot one down.
Reapers and Predators are in another class entirely because in the psyche of modern times, they are the heart of the targeted killing program. "People think about drone strikes when they think about drones," Isacson said.
"Big grey drones show up in other people’s countries," said Capt. Bill Ipock, a Navy officer in SOUTHCOM’s Counterdrug Program, "there’s political aspects to that that you have to take a look at."
The military operations that began earlier this year in Mali are highlighting the use of drones in Africa, another potential area of increased drone activity in the coming years.
Given the distance between American military operations in Africa intelligence gathering has been difficult on the continent and is a gap military leaders would like to close.
The biggest difficulty is a basing shortfall:
"There’s not sufficient discussion about basing," [Gen David Rodriguez] said. "No one in my office or in many of the area Air Force offices understands that piece yet. So we’ve got some questions into AFRICOM: ‘Tell me what you need and what the requirement is.’ We’ve also asked AFRICOM and SOCOM: ‘What do you see the future of AFRICOM being? Is it one or two large locations? Or is it a number of smaller locations because the distances are so dramatic?’"
For now, the Predators flying from the small airbase in Niamey have a vast area to service. And there is nowhere near the basing required to absorb the hundreds of Reapers coming online.