Can the Air Force Really Build as Many Drones as It Wants?

 In Industry, Acquisition, & Innovation, Air, Forces & Capabilities

Key point Drones have proven their worth in combat. Here’s how the Air Force wants to build more and better drones.

The Air Force is revving up plans to acquire more Reaper sur­veil­lance and attack drones faster with a decid­ed effort to expe­dite the devel­op­ment and deliv­ery process of up to as many as thirty-six new drones per year.

The refined acqui­si­tion plan, led by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s MQ‑9 Program office, is expect­ed to reduce the time it takes to deliv­er the air­craft to oper­a­tional units by as much as 35-per­cent. The pro­gram is called Agile Enterprise Reaper Solution (ARES).

“Prior to ARES, the stan­dard con­tract award time­line was rough­ly 380 days. Now we can award in just a couple of days and field the air­craft in 26 months” Alicia Morales, air­craft pro­duc­tion man­ag­er with the Medium Altitude Unmanned Aerial Systems, said in an Air Force report

Reapers are in such high demand due to what Air Force lead­ers describe as an “insa­tiable appetite for ISR,” yet in recent years the mis­sion scope of the drone has been expand­ing sub­stan­tial­ly. The ser­vice has been incre­men­tal­ly adding more weapons to the plat­form, includ­ing more air-to-ground air-dropped bombs.

Several years ago, the Air Force added the GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition to the Reaper’s arse­nal, mas­sive­ly widen­ing the attack enve­lope for the drone. The GPS-guided GBU-38 precision bomb brings new offen­sive strike abil­i­ty to the Reaper drone — a 66-foot medium-alti­tude air­craft often used for both ISR and pre­ci­sion strikes on enemy tar­gets. 

The Reaper now fires the AGM-114 Hellfire mis­sile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs—free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guid­ance kit. JDAM tech­nol­o­gy allows the weapons to drop in adverse weath­er con­di­tions and pin­point tar­gets with “smart” accu­ra­cy. Once released from the air­craft, the JDAM autonomous­ly nav­i­gates to the des­ig­nat­ed target coor­di­nates. Air Force data on JDAMs says target coor­di­nates can be loaded into the air­craft before take­off, man­u­al­ly altered by the air­crew before weapon release, or auto­mat­i­cal­ly entered through target des­ig­na­tion with onboard air­craft sen­sors.

In its most accu­rate mode, the JDAM system will pro­vide a weapon cir­cu­lar error prob­a­ble of 5 meters or less during free flight when GPS data is avail­able. Circular Error Probable, or CEP, is a mea­sure­ment indi­cat­ing the area in which more than half of the precision-guided munitions are expect­ed to hit.

If GPS data is denied, the JDAM will achieve a 30-meter CEP or less for free flight times up to 100 sec­onds with a GPS qual­i­ty hand­off from the air­craft, Air Force data explains. JDAMs can be launched from very low to very high alti­tudes in a dive, toss or loft and in straight and level flight with an on-axis or off-axis deliv­ery, ser­vice infor­ma­tion adds. 

Furthermore, addi­tion­al air-to-sur­face guided weapons could add mis­sion pos­si­bil­i­ties to the cur­rent Hellfire and laser-guided bombs able to hit smaller and mobile tar­gets, enabling the Reaper drone to have suc­cess with attacks against groups of enemy fight­ers, moving combat vehi­cles or other high-value tar­gets. 

Senior Air Force offi­cials have told The National Interest that the Reaper may even drop the Small Diameter Bomb, a smart weapon with a range of 40-miles. The bomb’s small size reduces col­lat­er­al damage and would allow the Reaper to achieve more kills or attack strikes per mis­sion, The Small Diameter Bomb, which can strike single or mul­ti­ple tar­gets, uses GPS pre­ci­sion. It is cur­rent­ly fired from the F‑15E, F‑16, F‑117, B‑1, B‑2, F‑22, and F‑35.

The Air Force cur­rent­ly oper­ates more than a hun­dred Reaper drones and has, in recent years, been con­fig­ur­ing the plat­form with additional fuel tanks to increase range. The Reaper Extended Range, or ER as it’s called, sub­stan­tial­ly increas­es and builds upon the cur­rent 4,000-pound fuel capac­i­ty of the drone with a range of 1,150 miles. The upgrades to Reaper add two 1,350-pound fuel tanks engi­neered to increase the drones endurance from six­teen hours to more than twenty-two hours, ser­vice devel­op­ers have said.

Kris Osborn is 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. This first appeared ear­li­er and is being repost­ed due to reader inter­est.

Image: Reuters

National Interest source|articles

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