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America’s drone programs matter today more than ever

KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images
A Taliban fighter is pictured against the backdrop of Taliban flags installed at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Sept. 11, 2021.

The scenes from Afghanistan will be seared into the public consciousness for generations to come — Afghans clinging to the sides of U.S. planes, trying to escape from Kabul. After 20 years of war, our withdrawal from this part of the world was not the structured, thoughtful drawdown it could and should have been. This was largely because of a lack of understanding of the intelligence regarding Taliban moves on the ground.

Today the Taliban rule Afghanistan. They are flush with money from the opium trade, empowered by their ability to drive out the U.S., and eager to reassert control over the country. When you add the rise of ISIS-K — a more violent faction of the Islamic State — we are left with a situation that cannot be ignored. Make no mistake: What happens in Afghanistan likely will not stay in Afghanistan.

So now what? Sending tens of thousands of ground forces back into the region is off the table; that was the centerpiece of the failed American strategy. The American public and our elected officials have no appetite to repeat that error.

Nonetheless, completely abandoning the region is not an option. If Afghanistan becomes what it once was — a sanctuary for terrorists and their sympathizers, with a government enabling them — we risk another attack on the U.S. that may bring back the horrors of 9/11.

The key to preventing any such reoccurrence is intelligence and its proper application — cultivating and maintaining a deep understanding of what is happening in the region. To reinforce that objective requires stepping up the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the MQ-9 Reaper and the RQ-4 Global Hawk that are indispensable parts of our nation’s persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) enterprise.

The MQ-9 UAV is purpose-built for long-endurance missions providing an unblinking eye to monitor hard-to-see corners of the world, providing the persistent reconnaissance capability required to surveil adversaries, establish pattern of life intelligence about their behavior and relationships and, if necessary, strike from a distance with lethal force without endangering U.S. personnel. It allows us to project power without projecting the vulnerability of boots on the ground. The RQ-4 Global Hawk possesses additional ISR capabilities and capacity and operates at much greater altitudes. UAVs are the ideal tool for Afghanistan, where we must know what is happening without having to send Americans into harm’s way.

Unfortunately, while everyone agrees that there is an urgent need for “over-the-horizon” airpower capabilities provided by the MQ-9 and the RQ-4 Global Hawk, the reality is that these ISR aircraft and related programs have been decimated by budget cuts. In our government’s haste to reprioritize budgets, these programs were consistently underfunded or cut despite theater commanders’ persistent demands for more. As examples, funding lines such as the “ISR Transfer Fund” were zeroed out and programs for efficient, contractor provided MQ-9 capabilities were eliminated in the fiscal year 2021 defense budget request, even though both Central Command and Africa Command listed contractor-supported ISR as their number one unfunded priority. 

Similarly, the Air Force has completely divested the Block 20 Global Hawk and is currently parking its Block 30 Global Hawks with plans to remove them completely from the active inventory next year. The Air Force is not buying any more MQ-9’s and does not have an advanced replacement ready. Until they do, this seems on its face to be unwise, considering what current events are clearly teaching us. Ultimately, they are being forced to take these actions because of the underfunding of the Air Force in President Biden’s budget, and by Congress not taking necessary corrective action. 

The withdrawal from Afghanistan illustrates the cost of under-resourcing these critical warfighting tools. The approach of “over-the-horizon” airpower use for counterterrorism operations sounds good and makes sense, but it cannot be effectively applied without proper funding and support for adequate numbers and types of aircraft required for successful execution. With the benefit of additional airborne ISR capabilities, we might have had better intelligence on the true situation in Afghanistan — a rapidly resurgent Taliban, a rapidly retreating Afghan national army, tribal chiefs cutting quiet deals with our former foes, among other indicators. With greater insight, Central Command may have been able to take more appropriate action to ensure a better planned, more orderly, safe and complete evacuation. 

Let us not make the same mistakes again. We cannot ignore what is happening in this part of the world and simply hope that the terrorist impulse disappears. There is no evidence of anything but greater danger ahead. We must ensure that both the capability and the capacity to provide sufficient overwatch is available to see what America’s terrorist foes are doing — and take appropriate steps to keep America and our allies safe. 

Simply put, airborne ISR conducted by UAVs in this region of the world is a national imperative. With the completion of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are left all but blind without an aerial capability that can monitor and, if necessary, rapidly strike in this under-governed, terrorist haven. More than ever, it is critical that Congress and the Department of Defense recognize this imperative and resource operational UAV programs with renewed urgency.  

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” former President Trump said in his 2019 State of the Union address. A great nation also should not blind itself to the realities that our enemies now have greater territory, resources and will to do us great harm. Our best answer is to keep a close watch on them using the tools and technology at our disposal — our large-scale UAVs. We must commit ourselves to retaining sufficient numbers and types of aerial reconnaissance/strike capable UAVs — before we regret not doing so.

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.

Tags Afghanistan Afghanistan Taliban Donald Trump drones Intelligence Joe Biden Reconnaissance Surveillance

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