The U.S. Air Force Reaper Drones were crucial to victories in the War on Terrorism by delivering lethal, decisive and precise hellfire missile attacks upon terrorist and insurgent targets. They also provided countless hours of real-time intelligence to ground commanders through video surveillance in the Middle East and around the world. In fact, these drones have been continually expanding mission scope through a growing weapons arsenal and even new air-to-air attack capability. Yet, could the Reaper survive a war against China or Russia? Probably not.
“We have effective RPAs that were designed for permissive environments where they do not have IADS (Integrated Air Defense Systems) or fighter jets coming after them. We will need a balance of the right size of a permissive RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft - drones) fleet as well as RPAs designed for contested environments and more high end threats like Russia and China,” Lt Gen Joseph T. Guastella, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, U.S. Air Force, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a video interview.
Senior Air Force weapons developers certainly see a continued role for the Reaper, particularly regarding its more recent ability to drop a much greater sphere of weapons and fire an AIM-9X air-to-air missile. However, simply put, the drone may not be stealthy enough, small enough or fast enough to survive a war against any major opponent armed with advanced air defenses or sophisticated air-to-air weapons.
“The Reaper fleet is healthy and robust and remains a critical part of our force. It is an effective platform for counterterrorism and deterrence. Its ISR and kinetic value offer incredibly valuable assets,” Guastella said.
Guastella’s reference to the need for drones capable of flying in a so-called contested environment was discussed in the context of an incident last year wherein Iran shot down a U.S. Global Hawk drone. Such an occurrence certainly raises the question as to whether certain larger, less stealthy drones might prove too vulnerable for certain major power wars.
“We have a rogue regime with Iran,” Guastella.
So, given Guastella’s comment about the need for new drones, some might wonder just what kind of technical characteristics future drones need. Of course, much of this is already being worked on, which might explain why there continues to be a massive push toward engineering stealthier drones as well as smaller drones. The concept of drone swarms, for example, does not only make sense when it comes to blanketing an area with surveillance from multiple angles at once, but also with respect to survivability and success against sophisticated enemies. One reason is redundancy, as a deployment of many small drones in a swarm means the mission can continue in the event that several were shot down, jammed or disabled. Also, a smaller target is simply less visible to an enemy and therefore more difficult to hit. Small drones can also test enemy air defenses or move into extremely close-in, lower altitude, high-threat environments with less risk of destruction.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.