We cannot let America's eyes go dark by ending drone intelligence

We cannot let America's eyes go dark by ending drone intelligence
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Last week, Adm. Craig Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, testified that a lack of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) “will significantly challenge our ability to understand the threats of all types in the hemisphere. Intelligence drives everything.” This is the second time in less than a year that Adm. Faller highlighted his need for more ISR.

The demand for ISR is also at the top of the unfunded priority lists for both Central Command and Africa Command. It is no secret that demand for the capability also would surge in Europe and the Pacific in the event of heightened tensions. The enduring high demand for ISR comes down to the need for actors at the strategic, operational and tactical levels to have situational awareness to know how best to complete their missions — how to best get the job done, while avoiding undue risk.

The vast majority of real-time ISR is secured through uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs), also called drones. However, despite their popularity, the Department of Defense (DOD) has them on the chopping block. For 2021, DOD elected to cut contractor-operated airborne ISR missions in the Middle East and Africa, despite combatant commanders emphasizing the need for these critical capabilities. This is something the Biden administration should reassess as it reviews the budget.


Absent the funding of these programs, America’s eyes go partially dark in places such as the Middle East, Africa and South America. Obviously, it is important to prioritize the threat posed by Russian and Chinese aggression, but we cannot ignore the threat posed elsewhere in the world. As the Islamic State and others so aptly proved, despite U.S. foreign policy, adversaries still get a vote and it is crucial to understand the domain so we can address problems before they spiral out of control. This is especially true when considering the role that Iran, China and others play stoking instability in Africa, South America and the Mideast.

The irony of these cuts is that they are aimed at the capacity that offers the most capability for the least cost. Government-owned, contractor-operated UAV ISR costs less than half to one-third that of government-operated equivalent platforms on a cost-per-flying hour basis. Moreover, ISR contractors can be scaled up and scaled down as requirements demand. Of note: These missions are ISR-specific. They do not involve the kinetic employment of weapons. 

The rationale for the Air Force’s decision to stop funding government-owned, contractor-operated ISR aircraft is part of an overall plan to move money from airborne ISR programs to free up funds for investment in “new technologies and in future ISR assets.” While this sounds practical in theory, it never has panned out in practice. For years, the Air Force has tried to trade off existing force structure in the hope that it could invest savings in future priorities. The problem is that the federal budget does not belong to the Air Force. The service can list its requirements, but these must pass through the Secretary of Defense, Office of Management and Budget, and Congress. The Air Force’s batting average in this process over the past 30 years is uniform — it loses the desired savings every single time this approach is taken.

U.S. military personnel in the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America need the insights afforded by ISR to keep conducting their critical day-to-day operations. Why cut ISR capacity at a time when operational requirements demand more? Because there is a serious mismatch between our national defense strategy and the resources allocated by Congress to execute that strategy. That mismatch ultimately will invite risk and reduce the probability of success of U.S. security objectives. To put it more bluntly, that cost will be measured in lives lost, regions destabilized, local populations at risk, and adversaries empowered. Commanders in these regions have testified that cutting ISR patrols will significantly reduce their aerial coverage. That represents a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach. 

The national defense strategy requires the U.S. to be able to deter, and if necessary, fight and win across the entire spectrum of operations — from humanitarian assistance/disaster response to global thermonuclear war and everything in between. That means being both ready if needed to face off in a large-scale conventional military confrontation with China, Russia or their proxies, as well as engaging in volatile places such as Africa, South America and the Middle East to shape stability where we continue to have vital strategic interests and important allies.  

Central to each of these responsibilities are the capabilities provided by airborne ISR — including flexible, cost-effective options afforded by private-sector partners. A sound analysis by the Biden administration of combatant command requirements will conclude that the rational thing to do is to invest in ISR, not cut it.

David A. Deptula is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general. He planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air and space operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, was the first chief of Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Follow him on Twitter @Deptula_David.