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Audit: Air Force Didn't Justify Reaper Fleet Size

The U.S. Air Force didn't justify its plans to buy a total of 401 MQ-9 Reaper drones worth about $77 billion, according to a report on a Pentagon Inspector General audit.

Officials with the service's Air Combat Command, which is headed by Gen. Gilmary Hostage and based at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, failed to get approval from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council for an increase in procurement quantity of the Reaper unmanned aircraft, according to the summary document released Wednesday.

They also didn't maintain "consistent, complete and verifiable" records for determining the proper number of the General Atomics-made drone -- which is a bigger, more lethal version of the MQ-1 Predator, the report states.

"As a result, the Air Force risks spending approximately $8.8 billion to purchase, operate, and maintain 46 MQ-9 aircraft it may not need," it states.

Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Karns, a spokesman for the service at the Pentagon, said the audit provides an incomplete picture of the acquisition program.

"The data in the report is a year old," he said. "It's based on information that is out of date."

Karns said the service has since adjusted the planned acquisition quantity to a total of 346 Reapers, including 343 production aircraft and three development models -- 55 fewer than the figure listed in the IG report. To date, the service has purchased 263 of the drones.

Also, acquisition documents put the overall cost of the MQ-9 acquisition program at slightly less than $12 billion, indicating the estimate from the IG report includes funding needed to sustain the fleet throughout its operational life.

The Air Force and Special Operations Command plan to spend a total of $591 million for a dozen Reapers and ground control stations in fiscal 2015, which began Oct. 1, according to budget documents. The funding will also be used to modify some of the existing drones into extended-range versions.

The full audit hasn't been made public and is only available for release pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request, according to the summary report.

The audit by the IG office, headed by Jon Rymer, recommends for the command's directorate of plans, programs and requirements, Maj. Gen. Scott Zobrist, to determine the cost and number of Reapers needed for various missions in an updated analysis to the Air Force Requirements Oversight Council, as well as the Joint Requirements Oversight Council.

In a response to the audit, an assistant to Zobrist agreed with the recommendations and indicated officials have already begun such an analysis.

The MQ-9 Reaper is among the aircraft the U.S. military is flying to conduct airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

The manufacturer, General Atomics, recently unveiled a new enhanced cockpit station for operators, complete with high-definition touch screens, a video game-like controller, and keyboard for chat and other messaging functions.

In a press release later in the day, the Air Force touted the value of the Reaper. With its significant loiter time, wide-range sensors, multi-mode communications suite and precision weapons, the MQ-9 provides a unique capability to perform strike, coordination and reconnaissance against high-value, fleeting and time-sensitive targets, it states.

"There isn't a Combatant Commander that doesn't want more of this capability," Col. Ed Thomas, spokesman for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the release. "The need for ISR remains a top requirement for our theater commanders and our national leaders."

(Story was updated to include comments from Air Force and Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesmen beginning in the fifth paragraph.)

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