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Pentagon Plans for Cuts to Drone Budgets

The Pentagon didn't expect to see the major budget cuts the U.S. military has received over the past two years that has forced Pentagon leaders to update planning documents such as the Unmanned Systems Integrated Roadmap.

The 2013 update released right before the New Year takes into account those cuts while also emphasizing the need to keep up with advances by countries like China and Iran in the drone market.

“This roadmap is two years since the last one. We knew budgets would be declining. I don’t think two years ago we understood how significant the down slope was going to be so this road map much more clearly addresses the fiscal challenges,” Dyke Weatherington, DoD’s director of unmanned warfare and ISR, told in an interview.

Overall, the fiscal year 2014 budget requests $4.1 billion for all unmanned systems, citing $3.7 billion for unmanned air systems, $13 million for ground systems and $330 million for maritime systems, respectively.

While the 2015 budget is still a work in progress and not yet released, Weatherington said there will likely be additional cuts to unmanned systems in the new request.

“We can generally say that from 2014 to 2015 the budget in the capability area will be reduced,” he added. “Within the department we are being very judicious about where we are putting our investment dollars and our current dollars.”

Weatherington noted that funds for UAS have been declining in recent years, saying that there was about a 24-percent reduction from 2012 to 2013 and a 30-percent reduction from 2013 to 2014.

While counterinsurgency and counter terrorism are still very much part of the equation, the Pentagon’s shift to the Pacific and overall Defense Strategy articulates a need to be prepared for more technologically advanced potential adversaries.

When it comes to anti-access/area-denial or more contested areas, Weatherington said some UAS might need to be modified or upgraded with electronic warfare technology in order to operate. However, he also referred to something he called strike packages, instances where manned and unmanned aircraft could work in tandem with long range strike assets, jamming and electronic warfare gear in order to access contested areas.

Weatherington said more manned-unmanned teaming is likely in the future.

“EW is one of those areas where we are going to see opportunities for unmanned systems, likely in tandem with manned systems to add real value to what the warfighter’s requirements are today. The combination of unmanned systems with our already installed base of manned systems gives you more flexibility than you can get out of any single system,” Weatherington explained.

UAS with greater range and endurance will be developed and emphasized in years to come, given the shift in focus toward the vast geographical expanse of the Pacific theater, he said.

“For scenarios that pit us against near-peer kinds of adversaries, range and endurance tend to be a premium -- especially in the Pacific theater of operations. The distances are very long and basing is more limited than other places around the world. Systems that provide flexibility in range, flexibility in endurance generally score pretty high to fulfill capability needs that the combatant commanders have,” Weatherington added.

The Navy’s Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike UAS, a carrier-launched aircraft now being developed for the future, represents the kinds of technologies needed to increase range and endurance, Weatherington said.

Meanwhile, greater interoperability and autonomy for unmanned systems are also key areas of focus for the UAS roadmap, Weatherington said.

Standardizing the waveforms data and video use to transmit information can greatly help interoperability, Weatherington added. For instance, standardizing data formats would allow a soldier or airmen viewing UAS video feeds on a Rover device or One System Remote Video Terminal to see video from a greater number of UAS in the area.

Furthermore, the roadmap says UAS should follow the lead of manned aerial platforms which have “settled on common armament interface units, bomb racks and logistics.”

At the same time, the roadmap says future unmanned maritime systems, both surface and underwater technologies, are likely to rise in numbers despite declining budgets. In particular, the roadmap sites the emerging Littoral Combat Ship as a platform expected to utilize several kinds of UAS.

Citing the success of the catapult-launched Scan Eagle and Integrator UAS systems currently in service with the Marine Corps and the Navy, Weatherington said greater numbers of small, ship-launched UAS platforms are likely in the future.

Weatherington also addressed concerning trends regarding handheld, micro-UAS.  A quick assessment of the Pentagon’s UAS inventory numbers reveals that the vast majority of systems, nearly 10,000, are in the small UAS category, according to DoD figures.

There are currently 7,362 Ravens, 990 WASPs, 1,137 Pumas and 306 T-Hawks – all small UAS. By contrast there are only 246 Predators and Gray Eagles, 126 Reapers, 491 Shadows and 33 Global Hawks – to cite a few from the larger categories.

The possible swarming of small UAS is a potential trend being recognized by DoD as both a risk and tactical advantage.

In fact, since they are small, cheap, easy to operate and available on the global market, small UAS are likely to be used by enemies of the U.S. as well, Weatherington said.

Weatherington said the Pentagon is already working on the next UAS roadmap, which will include greater exploration of stealth capabilities, cutting-edge or new materials and self-defense systems for UAS.

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