> our title:

Part 5: A Final Word on Drones and Reaper

> original title:

A Final Word on Drones and Reaper

(Source: Center for Defense Information; issued March 5, 2012)

I wish to briefly address here how drones, and specifically Reaper, provide a good example of how our poor selection of modern weapons makes our defenses more expensive and less effective--and lead to further, deeper decay. (Others and I have written about how more money has led to a shrinking, aging, less ready to fight American military. If you want samples of those writings, just ask.)

The counterintuitive trend (more money buys less defense) has frequently been explained by the ever growing price of weapons, mostly in terms of what is termed "cost growth" as measured by GAO. It has also been explained by the above inflation growth in the cost of each member of the armed forces. While many see DOD healthcare and military retirement as the problem, it has also, perhaps even mostly, occurred in indiscriminate pay raises, the top heavy nature of our armed forces, extraneous (but expensive) benefits like concurrent receipt and World War II survivors' benefits, and other costs. There are yet to come huge cost increases for benefits for veterans of the recent and ongoing wars.

The Washington DC conventional wisdom seems to hold that just minor changes in DOD healthcare and convening a blue ribbon commission to tweak down military retirement will fix the overall DOD manpower cost problem. Of course, it will not.

The hardware end of today's conventional conventional wisdom seems to believe similarly that only minor pain is needed, such as the cancellation of a few secondary programs (like the block 30 version of Global Hawk) and some short-term delays in a few major programs (like the F-35 and submarine production). But, surely no change in the fundamental course is necessary. Indeed, new equipment will bring such dramatic improvements in performance that more capability can be had, even if the costs go up and the inventory goes down, or so the argument goes.

The penultimate example is the F-22: while it's cost is truly extraordinary (over $400 million per airplane in 2011 dollars according to GAO), its widely accepted reputation is that it brings such vast capability that the purchase is not an act of self-destruction. (The case that the F-22 is a huge mistake, even a step backward, has been made and will be made again.)

We heard the same case being made on drones: the costs are minor and even if they are more than we are initially told, they bring such dramatically increased capabilities that we can get more for less. Reaper , for example, was described almost universally as both cheap and a major step forward in capability, and it did so with only minor cost overruns, unlike the F-22. The leap ahead in capability was so dramatic that the rhetoric surrounding it was even more "groundbreaking" than the descriptions of the F-22, where the claimed improvements were more evolutionary.

Setting aside the F-22 for later analysis, the case for the MQ-9 has fallen flat on its face. It is more, not less, expensive to own and operate than analogous aircraft, and its performance is actually quite pathetic compared to manned aircraft. On one measure, it could not even compete effectively with a rudimentary Cessna aircraft.

In addition to exacerbating the more money buys less defense syndrome, the MQ-9 and drones like it introduce other forms of decay into our armed forces: pilots are drawn out of the manned aircraft force to fly drones where their manned aircraft skills are not only lost temporarily while the pilot is sidetracked but decay permanently--as any pilot will tell you. Moreover, with a new career path opening up in the Air Force and Navy for "flying" drones, what will happen to the highly perishable skills of combat pilots--not just the ones who go fly drones but the ones who stay with aircraft but are no longer exercising what are perceived as the premier in-air skill? Their training and readiness budget has been declining for years; it will decline more sharply now.

If ever we are forced to fight an enemy whose skies are actually defended by working equipment with competent operators, what is going to happen to the American campaign after the skies are swept clean of hapless drones and the decayed skills of our available human operators, ignored for years, confronts American political and military commanders with some very ugly choices?

We are also growing an American political and military culture that sees warfare as a readily acceptable policy option that means no unforeseen consequences at home and nothing but mission success abroad. The selection of incompetent, unprepared and/or unequipped enemies, unable to respond effectively, has enabled this thinking. Now we believe we have the ultimate weapon that does not even risk our military personnel; we guarantee ourselves success--even if it is a little grisly on the receiving end--and we presume no threat we can't stop to the homeland. Anything else would come to Americans as a gigantic surprise, especially given how policy makers and prognosticators have presented the options.

War rarely comes without surprises; we are setting ourselves up for a long series of unpleasant ones.

Considering these more important issues starts with a better understanding of the simplistic ones. Start below with the simple question of the MQ-9 Reaper's physical performance. Note the web of money and policy entanglements that are spun around it. I urge you to then consider the deeper, longer range implications.

Click here
for the full article, plus links to previous parts in the series, on the CDI website.

Click here
for the entire series (24 pages in PDF format) on the WSI website.