Air service shaking up drone strategy post-Afghanistan

As the Afghan war grinds to a close, the Air Force is shaking up its drone strategy that has governed the service's unmanned aerial operations for over a decade of combat. 

The proposed changes are "not so much about [drones] but [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] writ large," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welch said Wednesday. 

Since combat operations began in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001, the service's drone fleet have been primarily focused on those two conflicts. 

ADVERTISEMENT
As a result, armed drone strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in those countries, as well as unmanned intelligence operations to support American boots on the ground, skyrocketed under the Obama administration. 

But as unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan and Iraq accelerated in number and capability, service and Pentagon leaders were forced to ignore other hot spots in the world were drones were needed. 

U.S. commanders conducting aerial surveillance operations in the Pacific, counterterrorism missions in Africa and counternarcotics missions in Central and South America were often short shrift in the list of Pentagon priorities. 

But with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 and the pending troop pullout in Afghanistan next year, Air Force leaders are turning their focus back to those theaters, Welsh told reporters during a breakfast in Washington. 

"We owe them something that we could not [deliver]" due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Welsh said regarding the Air Force's evolving drone strategy. 

That said, the four-star general said it is still difficult to predict how service leaders will chart that new course on drone operations -- particularly in the face of budget cuts under sequestration. 

Under sequestration, the Pentagon is staring down $500 billion in mandatory spending cuts. The cuts began in March and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

The Air Force is already planning for a financial future where massive, across-the-board defense cuts under sequestration are part of the service's fiscal reality for the next decade. 

The plan, dubbed Air Force 2023, is already in the works inside the service's headquarters at the Pentagon, according to Welch. 

Pentagon leaders slashed just over $1 billion total from its unmanned weapons programs within the department's $45.4 billion request for all military aircraft spending in its fiscal 2014 spending budget earlier this year. 

Dyke Weatherington, the Pentagon's unmanned warfare director, said those cuts forecast for fiscal 2014 were just the beginning.

"We will see [future] reductions" to unmanned weapons portfolios, Weatherington said during a speech in August. 

Those future cuts will hit Defense Department coffers hardest in the fiscal 2015 budget plan, which is currently being drafted inside the Pentagon, and over the next two to three budget cycles.

The Pentagon's FY15 budget plan, expected to hit Capitol Hill in February, is the first spending blueprint to account for defense cuts under sequestration. 

When asked how the air service planned to shift its drone strategy in the wake of sequestration, Welch replied: "I do not know where we are going to go."