More drones needed in Afghanistan, says Dunford

"I will need a sustained [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] effort post-2014," Gen. Joseph Dunford told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

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"In fact, at the time that we reduce forces, [unmanned drones] actually become as important or more important," the four-star general said during the Tuesday's hearing on the current state of the Afghan war. 

But as the Pentagon positions itself for a post-Afghanistan future, Defense Department leaders are shrinking their investment in the controversial counterterrorism tactic.

The aggressive use of armed drones in Afghanistan has played a significant role in turning the tide of the over decade-long conflict, according to Dunford. 

"I would tell you that the Taliban are very concerned about those vehicles, and they talk about them all the time," he told committee members. 

However, he did acknowledge the tremendous toll those drone operations take on Afghan civilians. 

While drone strikes have paid dividends for U.S. and NATO commanders, the instances of collateral damage they cause has been a significant hurdle for American war planners. 

"Even if we're doing it perfectly, if it creates, you know, a great deal of controversy within a civilian community," Dunford admitted. "That can make our challenge more difficult down the road." 

U.S. drone operators have taken steps to cut down on those civilian casualties, according to Dunford. 

"When we employ unmanned vehicles in Afghanistan, we have the same standard . . .as we [do] with manned vehicles," he said. 

Those steps, the four-star general noted, all result in a "clear assessment of the collateral damage that might be associated with a particular strike." 

"So mitigation of civilian casualties is no different, whether there's a pilot in the cockpit or not," Dunford added. 

Dunford's call for more armed drones in the skies of Afghanistan after the 2014 troop withdrawal comes as the Obama administration is looking to hand DOD control over all armed drone operations. 

Under the Obama administration’s proposal, the CIA would continue to supply intelligence on possible targets, but actual control over the drone strikes would fall to the military. 

But under reductions to the department's drone programs in the fiscal 2014 budget plan, the services may not have enough assets to support that plan or Dunford's postwar demands. 

Pentagon officials slashed spending on unmanned drones across the board, cutting just over $1 billion from those programs in the department's newest budget proposal for fiscal year 2014.  

The drone cuts were part of the $45.4 billion request for all military aircraft in the department's fiscal 2014 spending plan, sent to Congress on April 10.