Is the U.S. Air Force Set for a "Crash Landing"?

Should the Air Force really be cutting back on drones, considering their surveillance capabilities and utility on the battlefield?

In its recently-released thirty-year strategy document, the Air Force lays out a clear vision for its future. Unlike many government strategy documents, America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future actually outlines priorities and choices and is aligned with the Air Force’s budget.

The problem is that the Air Force seems to be going in the opposite direction of its Commander-in-Chief.

President Obama has signaled a muscular response to the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), vowing to “destroy” ISIS and undertaking steps to build a coalition to do so. Airpower has already proven vital in halting ISIS’s advance in northern Iraq and assisting Iraqi forces in retaking key areas. A model of local forces on the ground buttressed by American airpower seems to be emerging, and if done correctly, can prove decisive in defeating ISIS. But the airpower needed is not the kind the Air Force is envisioning for its future.

Countering terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS requires more than simply dropping bombs. The key enabler is intelligence, much of which comes from unmanned aircraft, or “drones.” Contrary to the popular attention paid to “drone strikes,” the most valuable service that drones provide isn’t the ability to drop bombs—many manned aircraft can do that—but rather the ability to loiter overhead for 16-20 hours at a time, watching terrorists and gathering information. Several drones working together can provide 24/7 coverage, an unblinking eye watching a terrorist’s every move, and most importantly, every person he meets with, allowing intelligence analysts to unravel a network and find key leaders.

The Air Force refers to these 24/7 coverage areas as “orbits,” and in its most recent budget, it slashed them. In its Fiscal Year 2015 budget submission, the Department of Defense reduced the number of 24/7 Air Force Predator and Reaper orbits by 15 percent, from 65 to 55. This would make sense if there was too much capacity in the force or if the reduction of troops from Afghanistan meant that fewer surveillance orbits were needed. The reality is that demand for unmanned aircraft for high-priority missions like counterterrorism far exceeds supply. And it isn’t getting any easier. A recent RAND Corporation study found that from 2010 to 2013, the number of jihadist groups increased by 50 percent and the number of fighters more than doubled. The problem isn’t confined to Syria and Iraq. The United States just killed an Al Qaeda leader in a drone strike in Somalia earlier this month. 

The U.S. military doesn’t have enough drones to maintain coverage over all of the threat areas, but rather than increase capacity, the Air Force is cutting it. This is a choice that the Air Force acknowledges quite plainly in their strategy document:

“While success in [contested air environments] cannot be at the expense of all lower-end capabilities, our unique and indispensable contribution requires that we posture for the most demanding scenario, not necessarily the most likely.”

If you’re not familiar with DoD code words like “contested,” “lower-end,” and “demanding,” this might seem like standard government pablum. It’s not. With these words, the Air Force is signaling a strategic choice, consistent with their budget, to sacrifice “lower-end” capabilities like Predators and Reapers for stealthy aircraft able to operate in contested air environments against sophisticated air-defense threats. The problem is that this logic equates the “most demanding” scenario in a purely military context with “most dangerous” to the nation. Groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda may not be impressive in a purely military sense—and certainly not in terms of their threat to airpower—but they are a strategic threat to U.S. citizens. The president has stated, in fact, that they are the top national-security threat. The Air Force, however, sees things differently.

The implicit assumption is that “higher-end” capabilities will be able to play down the spectrum of conflict against less capable actors. The problem is that time and again, the U.S. military has seen that logic doesn’t work very well in practice. U.S. ground forces optimized to fight conventional militaries floundered in the early years of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns until they relearned counterinsurgency tactics that had been abandoned since Vietnam. Stealthy aircraft can be used to provide surveillance in uncontested environments, but the question is one of capacity. They are extremely expensive relative to nonstealthy drones like Predators and Reapers, and so investing solely in higher-end capabilities will result in insufficient numbers to cover terrorist networks like ISIS and Al Qaeda. The Air Force strategy document actually acknowledges this problem:

“In the early years of our Air Force, a high-end focus left a force structure that was less effective and efficient in conducting combat operations at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict.”