Cost-Effective Drones Transforming Warfare

Tuesday, 21 Jul 2009 09:53 AM

By Arnaud De Borchgrave

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If the Pentagon can't figure out a way to defend the United States on half a trillion dollars a year, then our problems are much bigger than anything that buying a few more ships and planes can cure.

So spoke Defense Secretary Robert Gates, angry with the profligate ways of both Congress and the Pentagon.

However, he misspoke. With add-ons, the Pentagon's spending for 2010 actually is close to $670 billion, or more than two-thirds of a trillion dollars, including the Afghan war against Pakistan-based Taliban, Pakistan's civil war against homegrown Taliban, and a postwar surge of terrorist bombings in Iraq, where 130,000 U.S. troops still are based outside the cities.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation in his valedictory address about the military-industrial complex, he omitted the key word: congressional. Time and again, Congress' armchair warriors have imposed costly weapons systems that the war fighters didn't want or need.

Sorely and urgently needed today are combat drones, such as the hunter-killer MQ-9 Reaper, a successor to the Predator. At $8 million a copy, the Reaper can fly 16 hours. With an operational ceiling of 50,000 feet, it flies at 220 mph, and with bursts of 300 mph, it can carry 1.5 tons of ordnance, including 14 air-to-ground missiles.

On the other hand, Gates says, the United States does not need the F-22 Raptor, a fifth-generation stealth fighter-bomber. The total cost of the F-22 program so far is $62 billion, or about $350 million per aircraft. To build more, beyond the 187 in service, as Congress wants, would cost $143 million per aircraft, at a time the federal budget deficit is nearing $2 trillion — in a single year.

The original plan, circa 1983, was to buy 648 F-22s, beginning in 1996 for $60 million each. The war plane was designed to best anything the Soviet Union could put in the air. But the Soviet Union imploded 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, F-22 production didn't start until 2001; its first operational flight test was in 2004. Now this airborne white elephant requires 30 hours of maintenance for every hour that it spends in the skies. This, in turn, drives the cost of one hour of flying to almost $50,000 (vs. $30,000 for its predecessor, the F-15).

The Pentagon acknowledged this month that only 55 percent of the F-22 fleet of 187 aircraft was available for stipulated missions in the period from October 2008 through May. The Raptor (F-22) has never flown combat missions over Iraq or Afghanistan; the (Grim) Reaper is in action round the clock over Afghanistan and Pakistan.

As is the case with most high-priced military hardware, subcontracts to vendors are spread around as many states as possible to garner congressional support. For the F-22, Lockheed Martin signed more than 1,000 subcontracts for 90,000 jobs in 44 states. This, in turn, has led Congress to force Gates to accept seven more F-22s at a cost of $1.75 billion.

But President Obama said, "We do not need these planes," and he's holding his veto pen at the ready.

Gates' preference is Lockheed's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, whose technology is a decade ahead of the F-22 and is the designated successor to the F-16, still the world's best fighter aircraft. Made in three versions, including short takeoff and vertical landing, the plane has attracted eight other nations as co-producers and advance buyers.

The U.S. Air Force is scheduled to get 1,763 JSFs; the Navy and the Marine Corps, 680. And Congress, in its bizarre wisdom, shaved $530 million from the administration's JSF request.

But the future of warfare is now in unmanned drones. Piloted by remote control from thousands of miles away via satellites, they hover over targets for hours and guide weapons down to individual insurgent chiefs in their supposedly safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas. Even pilotless fighter aircraft are on the drawing board. Aerial dogfights between Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles will become possible in the next decade.

This year, the USAF will train more drone "jocks" than fighter jocks. For the defense bagatelle of $476 million, the military acquired 195 Predator drones at $4.5 million apiece. The more recent Reapers cost $17 million, and more than 30 are in action in the AFPAK theater.

The British Royal Air Force has bought two spy-in-the-sky planes to snoop on terrorists worldwide — from 3 miles up. They can warn of potential ambushes and bomb planting. With the right sensor array, they can see whether a suspected terrorist is at home, listen in to and record his mobile calls and tell you whether his car engine is hot, warm, or cold.

On the coming neurotech hit parade, breakthroughs in understanding how the brain works and how to control it soon will make it possible to manipulate how we think, remember, and even remotely control objects in ways never before possible, according to MIT's Technology Review. George Mason University's Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study of the inner workings of the mind has come up with a ray that temporarily can neutralize the aggressive compulsion in a would-be terrorist's mind.

A UCAV-cum-ray gun in our future? The ideal weapon for a casualty-averse superpower.

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