Defense industry girds for drone drawdown

Top U.S. defense industry firms are bracing for the looming drawdown in drone development and manufacturing as the Pentagon continues to cope with deep budget cuts.

Unmanned weapons systems have so far been insulated from the Defense Department's budget woes, with Congress and the Pentagon pumping billions into current and future programs.

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Lawmakers and military brass have defended the proliferation of unmanned weapon systems in the U.S. arsenal, citing their tremendous intelligence-gathering and air strike capabilities on the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. But with massive, across-the-board cuts already hitting the Pentagon under the White House's sequestration plan, top Pentagon leaders are warning the next decade could be a tough one for drone makers.

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.

Dyke Weatherington, the Pentagon's unmanned warfare director, told industry leaders on Tuesday that those cuts forecasted for fiscal 2014 were just the beginning.

"We will see [future] reductions" to unmanned weapons portfolios, Weatherington said at an industry symposium on unmaned vehicle systems in Washington.

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.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in July that the Pentagon will begin submitting two versions of its annual budget plan to the White House over the next four years, beginning in 2015. The dual budget submissions will include “one at the President’s budget level and one at sequester-level caps,” Hagel said.

The move is part of the department's overall strategy to cope with $500 billion in spending cuts mandated by the sequester over the next decade. The cuts began in March, and would reduce Pentagon spending by $52 billion next year.

However, a handful of military leaders and industry officials sought to ease industry's concerns during Tuesday's symposium.

The anticipated cuts to unmanned weapons programs, due to the sequester, will not be the death knell for the thriving defense industry sector that specializes in those systems. The reductions "won't be the end of anything," Air Force Col. Bill Tart, head of the service's unmanned capabilities division, said Tuesday.

"These things go in cycles [and] there will be an upswing," Boeing's Eric Mathewson, head of unmanned systems business development, said during the same conference

Unmanned systems have become such an integral part of U.S. military operations that Pentagon and service leaders cannot allow those weapons to fall by the wayside, Tart said.

"We are not going to go backwards" in terms of developing and building new unmanned weapons and vehicles, Tart said.

What service and Pentagon leaders are struggling with now is how to rebalance that fleet of unmanned weapons and vehicles in order to cope with the department's tough fiscal situation.

Tart pointed out that "a rebalance is not a pivot," and noted there were no department plans to turn its back on unmanned weapon systems.