More civilian contractors are working directly with the U.S. military and CIA to gather intelligence and execute offensive strikes as the U.S. continues to expand the number of drones it operates around the world.
Many of these contractors are helping drive the U.S.’ demand for their personnel by rapidly evolving drone technologies and capabilities, working in tandem with the U.S. to develop a global network of pilot centers, analysis stations and bases that can collect intelligence or strike on adversaries in a host of countries.
Investing in this network requires more personnel than investing in more traditional military air platforms, David Cloud wrote in a Dec. 29 Los Angeles Times piece. Air Force figures indicate it takes around 168 people to keep a single Predator in flight for 24 hours and 300 people for the larger surveillance Global Hawk, compared to the approximately 100 people needed to operate a F-16 fighter mission.
Contractors fill in for the Air Force’s shortage of ground-based pliots and crews who fly the drones, the analysts who constantly pour over the intelligence and reconnaissance gathered, and the technicians and mechanics who provide upkeep, Cloud said.
The Air Force currently operates more than 50 drones at all hours over Afghanistan and other areas and has a total fleet of around 230 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks.
Even with an unclear budget picture, both those figures stand to grow. The Pentagon plans to purchase 730 medium and large drones over the next ten years, close to double the 775 the Congressional Budget Office counted in the current U.S. inventory. That figure doesn’t include hundreds currently under construction or in planning.
“Our number one manning problem in the Air Force is manning our unmanned platform,” Gen. Philip M. Breedlove told the LA Times. Cloud said the Pentagon plan would require thousands more personnel and that “without civilian contractors, U.S. drone operations would grind to a halt.”
BAE Systems‘ U.S. subsidiary has posted an ad for a special operations veteran to manage several hundred employs “while conducting [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] / [full motion video] missions.”
As the U.S. fleet of unmanned aircraft grows, so too does the international reach and work of contractors.
Miller writes that in 2009, the U.S. was only conducting non-war zone drone operations in Pakistan, where it had fired around 44 strikes over five years.
Today, the U.S. carries out drone operations above or near Yemen, Somalia and Iran and the U.S. military flies drones from bases in Seychelles and Ethiopia. The military and CIA now have clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents, with a newly constructured CIA base on the Arabian Peninsula.
Since 2009, the New America Foundation estimates the U.S. has carried out nearly 240 strikes in Pakistan.
One potential next stop: aircraft carriers. Northrop Grumman‘s prototype X-47B can be controlled by computer, rather than joystick, and will be the first drone able to take off and land on the moving deck of an aircraft carrier, the Wall Street Journal reports.
It can carry up to 4,500 pounds of weapons.