The U.S. Air Force originally wanted to ditch its MQ-1 Predators by the end of 2016, two years earlier than the current date, according to documents we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
A two-year difference over a retirement date doesn’t sound like a big deal. But the story underscores ongoing problems within America’s drone force. Namely, the service is struggling to keep up with an explosion in demand for its drones, without enough money and human operators to keep the robots flying.
In 2013, Air Combat Command had decided to “divest” its 150 Predators by the end of the 2016, according to an annual historical review for that year. ACC owns the majority of the Air Force’s combat aircraft, including the bulk of the service’s drones.
“This was ‘do-able, but is contingent upon several variables,’” the history explained, quoting an April 2013 email. “Shortfalls in these variables will result in either timeline deviations or CAPs reductions.” Censors redacted the sender’s name from the report.
The acronym “CAP” refers to a “combat air patrol.” Consisting of four aircraft, the CAP structure theoretically allows crews to keep a drone circling over a specific area indefinitely. When one drone needs to head back to base to refuel, another arrives and take over.
“One of those variables depended on support … to accept a decrease from the 65 CAP plan to 55 CAPs,” the annual history noted.”Timing played a crucial part in the plan as the command faced … severe fiscal challenges.”
But the support would not be forthcoming, and bureaucratic wrangling magnified the money problems.
Under pressure to meet the ever increasing demands of Washington’s new way of war, the Air Force’s drone crews are overworked and under-appreciated. In one instance in 2011, a group of remote pilots were so demoralized they actually booed their commander during a briefing.
Despite nearly a decade of drone strikes around the world, the Air Force was still treating the unmanned planes as a “novelty” by the summer of 2010, according to another annual ACC review we obtained through FOIA. Originally overseen by the U.S. Army, the flying branch took control of the drones in 1996.
During the following decade, the drones would see nearly constant combat, and the increasingly dated Predators were showing their age. The single-engine drones have a maximum range of nearly 800 miles but a top speed of less than 150 miles per hour. The pilotless planes can only carry two laser-guided Hellfire missiles.
On Mar. 7, 2011, drone-maker General Atomics delivered the Air Force’s last Predator. The California-based aviation company shifted its focus to supplying the more powerful MQ-9 Reapers.
The Reapers cruise at more than 200 miles per hour and fly routes more than 1,000 miles long. The newer aircraft can also carry four Hellfires, two laser-guided bombs, or a combination of these weapons.
Yet, as last Predator rolled off the assembly line, Congress was looking for ways to curtail government spending. In August 2011, American lawmakers capped the defense budget and threatened a policy known as “sequestration” — additional automatic cuts — if the Pentagon didn’t adhere to the new rules.
The Predators appear to have been an easy target … at least on paper. Getting rid of the MQ-1s would free up both pilots — notoriously hard to keep interested in flying drones — and money within ACC. On top of that, the plan looked good for the Air Force’s commando headquarters.
In complicated budget deals first cut four years earlier, the conventional command had agreed to pay for Air Force Special Operations Command’s own drone fleet up front. AFSOC would then reimburse the cost.
The aerial commandos expected to save more than $15 million in the first year by gutting the Predators from their fleet, explained AFSOC’s 2013 annual history. And with Reapers on the way to replace them, everything about the whole plan seemed perfectly reasonable.
Unfortunately, problems cropped up immediately. Firstly, the Air Force wanted to shift CAPs to the commandos to try and ease the situation on the conventional side of the house. But no one was sure whether AFSOC would or even could take on responsibility for the new drones without help. The Air Force had to figure out who was in charge of what while dealing with funding troubles.
“The issue … mainly centered on operating locations,” AFSOC historians wrote in the annual review. “If the bulk of deployed operating locations were shared with ACC units, ACC would probably retain overall responsibility.”
The Air Force runs its drones through a process called “remote split operations.” After a team in or near a warzone gets a drone off the ground, a crew inside a container at a base in the United States takes over via satellite link. When the drone heads back to base, the deployed airmen regain control and land the aircraft.
That’s quite normal. Since various units regularly share bases around the world, the Air Force has procedures in place to keep things organized. The hard part was setting up new control stations … while AFSOC took over and the demand for drones exploded.
With no money to buy more gear, the Air Force would have to physically move the containers with all the gear from base to base as part of the larger transition. Worse, the Air Force found itself backed into a corner where it would have to cut CAPs, at least for some amount of time.
“Civilian furloughs and an unforeseen lack of a continuing resolution authority slowed work further,” the AFSOC historians lamented.
In the end, the Air Force had to come up with yet another workaround. Instead of moving the equipment to Hulburt Air Force Base in Florida, AFSOC would just take over one of the control stations at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. But there was another, bigger problem. With the impending retirement of the Predator, the aerial commandos simply didn’t have enough drones to meet their goals.
“Some questioned the ability to go to 22 CAPs and the ability to do so with an all MQ-9 fleet,” the history noted. “Thus, if AFSOC went to a 22 CAP program of record, the command still required a mixed fleet of MQ-1s and MQ-9s, the exact thing they wanted to get away from.”
In effect, the Air Force’s plans had left the commando headquarters holding the Predator bag, whether it liked it or not. And if AFSOC had to hold onto the aging drones, unforeseen costs would likely replace any potential savings.
In a sort of vicious cycle, the commandos proposed flying fewer of the more capable Reapers to pay for operating the older Predators. By the end of 2013, the Air Force hadn’t figured out how many CAPs to give AFSOC, according to the history.
We now know the Air Force had to delay plans to cut the Predators. And none of this uncertainty seems to have helped the morale problems in the flying branch’s drone force.
In January, Air Force officials said the pilots and crews were strained to the “breaking point.” Four months later, ACC announced plans to cut back the number of CAPs and hire contractors to fly them, the Air Force Times reported.
But regardless of these nagging problems or AFSOC’s ability to help pick up the slack, the Air Force seems determined to send the Predators to the boneyard once and for all.