Here’s another headline from Air Force Times, which (at first glance) appears troubling:
In recent testimony before Congress, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General T. Michael Moseley, reported that the service has lost “48 or 49” of the 90 Predator drones it has received. Even those with an aversion to math–your humble correspondent included–can figure out that the cumulative loss rate is better than 50%, far higher than any other airframe in the DoD inventory.
So the Predator program is a disaster, right? Each of these unmanned aerial vehicles cost roughly $1 million each. Add on the sensor package–which is also lost when a Predator goes down–and the price doubles. So, these UAV losses have cost the U.S. taxpayer almost $100 million in destroyed airframes and sensors.
But some elements are missing from the Times report. First, the paper neglects to mention that the Predator has been in operation for more than a decade. Divide the cumulative losses by the number of years in service, and the “average” number of Predator losses is about five a year.
Then, factor in the platform’s combat service during that period. According to limited data from GlobalSecurity.org, at least four Predators were lost in Kosovo, and nine more crashed in the first year after 9-11. In other words, about 25% of the UAVs were lost in combat operations, in a relatively short span, encompassing the 88-day campaign of Operation Allied Force (1999), and first year of Enduring Freedom, which also coincided with the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
In support of combat operations in the Middle East, the number of flight hours logged by Predator is “off the charts.” In 2005, a single Predator squadron, then based at Nellis AFB, NV, logged an amazing 27,000 flying hours, far more than any other Air Force flying unit. The Air Force has at least three operational Predator squadrons; all are busy in support of training and contingency missions around the world, and they log a lot of flying hours. As we’ve noted before, loss rates are typically calculated per 100,000 flying hours; using that barometer, the number of Predators lost is still above manned aircraft, but more “acceptable” in terms of hours flown, and the conditions that UAVs typically operate under.
As one Predator squadron commander observered, the platform’s biggest problem is its popularity. Demand for UAV support from combat units–particularly ground forces–has increased geometrically over the past five years. That means more missions, more flying hours, and a greater strain on operators and maintenance personnel to keep Predators in the air. That strain is further compounded by weather and altitude conditions–particularly in Afghanistan, and the fact that the enemy fires on our UAVs, and he gets lucky from time-to-time. We’ve also lost Predators due to operational and mechanical problems, ranging from pilot error (flying an aircraft by remote control, from thousands of miles away is more difficult than you might think), to system failures–the same issues associated with manned aircraft.
Even in an era of $600 billion defense budgets, $100 million in lost UAVs is a major chunk of change. So, the Air Force carefully analyzes each Predator crash, learns from it, and incorporates those lessons into future operations. More importantly, a more detailed analysis of Predator’s history reveals that the service, its “operational” customers and the taxpayer–have received a good deal of bang for their buck. By pushing the limits of system performance and operations, the Air Force has delivered a genuine, persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capability for troops on the ground, resulting in the discovery of countless IEDs, weapons caches, terrorist movements and other details that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. That, in turn, has saved the lives of countless troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s hard to put a price tag on that type of “savings.”
Like the blind hog finding the proverbial acorn, the Times does somehow manage to highlight an important element of the UAV debate in its coverage. As General Moseley reminded that Congressional committee, the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan are increasingly crowded with UAVs, operated by all the services. He is correct in advocating that all drones above 3700 feet be controlled by a single manager–the USAF. The Big Sky/Little Aircraft theory goes only so far, even in the (relatively) wide open spaces of the Middle East.