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Illustration. Photo: U.S. Air Force
Illustration. Photo: U.S. Air Force

Al-Qaeda is morphing and metastasizing, spreading like a cancer in an arc of jihadism from the deserts of Northern Mali through Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Islamic extremists continue to gain ground in Iraq, and President Barack Obama has authorized more than a dozen airstrikes as fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant threaten to take Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

According to Defense One the U.S. Defense Department, meanwhile, is cutting one of the most vital tools against this threat: loitering unmanned aircraft, aka drones, to provide persistent surveillance of terrorist networks.

While DOD has had drones flying over Iraq for over a month, most of them attack drones, a drastic shortfall in global supply means that their presence in Iraq is at the expense of another vital mission elsewhere. And yet not only is DOD not moving to address this shortfall, it is taking steps to reduce its drone fleet, a dangerous move that will make it harder to keep tabs on a growing and changing terrorist threat.

In its recent Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon announced a 15 percent cut to its Predator and Reaper fleet, the bulk of the unmanned aircraft currently used to surveil terrorists around the globe. This isn’t because there is an excess of capacity. Demand for airborne surveillance for critical missions like countering terrorism far outstrips supply. It’s because the ugly disease of “next war-itis” that Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeatedly warned about during his tenure has flared up in the Pentagon yet again.

Despite guidance from the president that prioritizes fighting terrorism, Pentagon force planners have taken their eye off of today’s threats and are overly concentrating their budget dollars on potential future challenges at the expense of current threats. With U.S. troops on their way out of Afghanistan, DOD leaders have mistakenly assumed that demand for unmanned aircraft will abate. In reality, the threat from terrorism is changing in ways that will make intelligence collection all the more important.

Unmanned systems conference 2014 – Israel

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It is true that the way in which unmanned aircraft are used today is very personnel-intensive. While the air vehicles themselves are relatively cheap, there are a tremendous number of people behind each “orbit” flying the aircraft, managing the sensors, and processing the reams of intelligence they produce. A smarter way to go about reducing costs in today’s budget-conscious environment would be to invest in new technologies that can reduce the manpower burden for operating these aircraft and exploiting the intelligence.

These include multi-aircraft control technology to reduce the number of pilots, wide area sensors that multiply the amount of information collected from each aircraft, and automated video processing to cut down on the number of intelligence analysts needed to manage the deluge of data. Together, these could dramatically reduce operational costs, conceivably even allowing a greater amount of intelligence to be collected at lower cost. Some of these manpower-reducing technologies are already fairly mature, and are explored in greater detail in the Center for a New American Security’s recent report, “Robotics on the Battlefield – Part I: Range, Persistence and Daring.”