‘Makers of Military Drones Take Off’:
So says the headline of a WSJ news article today (Monday, August 24, 2009, B1, by August Cole), noting that unmanned aircraft – drones such as the Predator to us civilians, although the Pentagon seems to prefer UMV – are transforming not just the military, strategic as well as tactical considerations, but defense contracting. (PopSci ran a story a little while ago on the training of UMV pilots as well.) The WSJ article notes that the administration’s fiscal 2010 defense budget request “includes approximately $3.5 billion for unmanned aerial vehicles.” The demand is robust enough that the Pentagon is reaching beyond the contracting behemooths such as Lockheed and Boeing to smaller manufacturers, such as General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., which makes Predators. (General Atomics, GA, is privately held and so there isn’t stock price information, but it’s an interesting company overall. I would guess, without knowing, that its private equity investors are happy indeed.)
The WSJ article describes some of the basic economics of manufacture, operation, costs, personnel and training costs, etc. of the drones. (It is important, by the way, to keep in mind that the typical function of drones today is surveillance, not firing missiles, which is actually a very tiny subset of what drones in total do. That is even more true if you add in the small, soldier-carried aerial drones used in tactical surveillance – (literally) tossed by a soldier into the air to get it flying. It is also true that much research is underway to make drones more useful as a firing platform in the future.)
Unmanned aerial vehicles are smaller and have less-extensive electronics systems than piloted military aircraft and don’t require as much fuel, big runways or major logistics support. UAV pilots also don’t require as much training as fighter jocks.
That lowers purchase and operating costs, as well as the risk to personnel. But for many missions, such as keeping enemy aircraft at bay, today’s UAVs still are no match for a manned fighter.
In Afghanistan, unmanned aerial vehicles routinely provide high-quality images that were previously available only from satellites or highflying spy planes. Demand has increased in particular for General Atomics’ biggest armed UAVs that not only can track targets, but can attack them as well.
According to Pentagon documents, about $1.3 billion in the 2010 budget is intended to buy the Predator’s better-armed successors, the Reaper and the Sky Warrior. That is enough to purchase 60 of the General Atomics aircraft for the Air Force and the Army.
By contrast, the Pentagon is seeking $10.43 billion to buy 30 of the military’s next-generation F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, which is still in development under a program led by Lockheed Martin Corp.
None of this represents merely a holdover of defense budgeting and planning from the Bush administration. As I have repeatedly noted, in many ways the Obama administration paved the way for drones, particularly as a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism method through both surveillance and targeted killing. It is central part of the Obama administration’s policy, and the budget priorities reflect that. As I’ve also repeatedly said, too, this is something on which the Obama administration is right – was right during the campaign and is right now. It is a strategically better policy and a more humanitarian one in the long term. That is one reason I, at least, would like to see its plain and robust defense as a legal matter by the current administration in all its quarters, including, for the example, the State Department and the Legal Advisor’s office. Given the importance of drones now and into the future, not merely as surveillance, but as tools of targeted killing, I should want to see all parts of the administration, and not just DOD, assert and articulate the legal basis for targeted killing using drones.