Even as President Obama draws up plans to start bringing some combat troops home form Afghanistan next month, the reality is the vast majority of troops aren’t going anywhere for at least another year. As a result, the Army is sticking with its plans to surge hundreds of hand-launched Raven and Puma unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to Afghanistan this summer.
Cliff Brandt, Product Manager, Small UAS at the Army’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office says that “we are doing a ‘surge push’ of an additional 180 Raven systems which is going to increase the number of Ravens from 15 per Brigade Combat Team (BCT) to 35 systems,” beginning in July. During a call with reporters on Thursday afternoon, he also said that the service is sending more Puma UAS to theater to be distributed to road clearance teams searching for roadside bombs. Clearance teams currently have 72 Puma’s and will have 84 at their disposal by August. The Army is also sending 129 additional Puma’s to Brigade Combat Teams, which will be deployed “down to the company level.” Both the Raven and Puma are hand-launched systems made by AeroVironment, with the RQ-11 Raven being the smaller of the two at 4.2 lbs., with a 4.5 ft. wingspan, while the Puma, weighs in at about 10 lbs. with a 8.5 ft. wingspan.
The U.S. military currently operates about 6,000 drones around the globe, with the majority of them being these smaller, hand-launched systems that can stay aloft for a few hours and provide small units with the ability to peek over the next hill.
But the big boys also play a huge role in current operations, everywhere from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iraq to Yemen to Mexico to parts of Africa, and even along the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada. According to a new report by the Congressional Budget Office, in order to purchase 730 new medium-sized and large drones, “based on designs currently in operation,” while also improving the unmanned systems already in service, the Department of Defense will have to spend about $36.9 billion through 2020.
The DoD plans on growing its UAV fleet about 35 percent over the next 10 years, spending $5.1 billion in 2012, and then fluctuating between $3.7 billion and $5.7 billion annually over the next five years before falling to just $2.4 billion by 2020, according to current plans.
The report only looked at the Army and Air Force, but said that it didn’t see any reason to question the Air Force’s plans to buy 288 more Reapers—48 per year from now through 2016—and 28 Global Hawks by 2018. The money watchers also signed off on the Army’s plans to purchase 20 Shadows and 107 more of the medium-altitude Grey Eagles.
The problem with making long-term plans, as the DoD found out in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that things will always change, and when they do, it’s bound to be in a way you hadn’t foreseen. So while the plans on the drawing board through 2020 make a lot of sense, how much would you bet on the fleet actually looking like this once 2020 rolls around?
Pic: US Army