Drones to Increase 45% in Pentagon 30-Year Aviation Plan

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper
Members of the 174th Fighter Wing check out an MQ-9 returning from a training mission at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield in Fort Drum, New York, on Feb. 14, 2012. Photographer: Tech Sgt. Ricky Best/US Army/DVIDS via Bloomberg

The Pentagon plans to increase its fleet of armed and long-haul surveillance drones by at least 45 percent over the next 10 years.

The U.S. military’s inventory of unmanned aerial vehicles, will grow to 645 aircraft in fiscal 2022 from about 445 in fiscal 2013, including versions of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s RQ-4 Global Hawk and General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predators, the Defense Department said in a report required by Congress on its aviation blueprint for the next 30 years.

In addition, the U.S. Army wants to buy 164 Gray Eagle drones from closely held General Atomics of San Diego from 2013 to 2022 “in direct support of ground forces,” the Pentagon said in the report obtained today.

Drones are playing an increasing role as the Pentagon seeks a force that will be “smaller and leaner” and more technologically advanced, as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put it when he introduced a revamped national security strategy in January. Even as the inventory of drones grows, the U.S. military is buying fewer than originally planned because of reduced budgets, a defense official told lawmakers.

“The military departments adjusted their plans to comply with a constrained top line by procuring fewer aircraft than desired,” Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote in a letter to the leaders of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee on April 4.

Budget Cuts

The Pentagon is cutting $487 billion from its spending over the next 10 years and may face an additional $500 billion in cuts if Congress and the Obama administration don’t reach an agreement on reducing the U.S. deficit.

Northrop Grumman of Falls Church, Virginia, fell 30 cents to $59.73 at the close in New York trading and has declined 4.2 percent in the past year.

The Defense Department plans to spend $770 billion on aviation assets from 2013 to 2022. This includes fighter jets, attack helicopters, airlift and cargo aircraft, combat search and rescue aircraft, air refueling planes, bombers, anti-ship and submarine aircraft, drones, training platforms and other aircraft used by Special Operations forces.

Annual funding levels will peak at $80 billion in 2022, according to the Pentagon.

The Air Force “plans to continue aggressive funding” for a new long-range bomber with nuclear capabilities, according to the aviation report. The bomber would reach its initial capability in the mid-2020s, according to the Pentagon. The Defense Department plans to “hold down” the unit cost to “ensure sufficient production” of 80 to 100 bombers, according to the report.

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