U.S. military turns away from drones

The secretive and lethal technology that has defined U.S. counterterror operations for the last decade – and remains the subject of global controversy – appears to be diminishing in importance as America prepares for the next era of combat.

New Pentagon documents show the military plans to invest next year in the lowest number of new drones in more than a decade. Though the complexity of Defense Department budgets makes it difficult to isolate a single reason for the shift, budget analysts agree the Trump administration’s stated intention of withdrawing from costly and deadly Middle East wars and instead focus on a resurging China and Russia is driving a focus on other technologies.

Since it was first employed on an industrial scale in Afghanistan, drone technology has evolved, become more lethal and expanded to conflict zones in Iraq and Syria, Libya, Yemen and across sub-Saharan Africa from Somalia to Nigeria. Their ability to exceed prior limits imposed on manned aircraft and to kill America’s enemies without putting its warfighters in harm’s way has proven irresistible to U.S. presidents since George W. Bush, and a tempting way to obscure involvement in foreign conflict.

Yet each of the major drone programs listed in the latest budget proposal the Pentagon compiled calls for purchasing fewer aircraft compared to at least the previous two years, including the MQ-1 Predator that was the original workhorse for conflict zones in the global war on terror, the larger and faster MQ-9 Reaper that will replace it, and the highly sophisticated – and singularly expensive – RQ-4 Global Hawk that represents part of the future of unmanned warfare.

The proposed budget provides insights into the priorities and plans of top decision makers, though it doesn’t necessarily reflect what Congress will authorize. And indeed many elements of the Trump administration’s latest proposal are likely dead on arrival at Capitol Hill. However, the extent to which the Pentagon wants to invest in drones is clearly tied to the kinds of wars it expects it will fight in the near future, experts say.

“Procurement of unmanned systems is an excellent litmus test, because these systems have been integral to operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere over the last 20 years,” Travis Sharp, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says.

The decline in new drone purchases has multiple causes, though the drop is driven at least in part by the Trump administration’s stated intention of pulling out of Afghanistan, limiting its presence in Iraq and Syria, and diverting more attention to preparing for potential conflict with its superpower rivals as envisioned in the most recent National Defense Strategy. War on that scale and against adversaries with comparable technology would require other kinds of weapons, budget experts say.

“The big emphasis now is on great power competition, and this is dominating most of the conversations in DOD,” says Karl Kaltenthaler, director of security studies at the University of Akron, who has documented the evolution of the U.S. military’s reliance on drones. “There is only so much of a budget pie to go around, and this may be part of it: We need to shift to more strategic weapons platforms, things that are going to be more useful in great power competition.”

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