WASHINGTON — The military aims to develop more sophisticated, high-tech drones and surveillance aircraft that can collect intelligence in increasingly dangerous combat airspace, a senior Air Force leader said Thursday.
Under pressure from Pentagon leaders, the Air Force has already dramatically increased the number of armed and unarmed drones over Afghanistan and Iraq. But there are growing worries that the U.S. needs aircraft able to gather information and wage electronic attacks in airspace that is more contested, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.
The Pentagon is keenly aware that the next war could be against an enemy with a well-equipped air force and sophisticated military instead of terrorists armed with guns and roadside bombs.
Persistent and growing terrorist activities in far-flung locations from East Africa to Yemen also require the U.S. to do more intelligence gathering across a broader geographic spectrum.
Breedlove declined to detail what the Air Force is considering, but said that it may require new or upgraded aircraft that are stealthier and less visible to radar.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has pressed the Air Force to boost the number of drones over Afghanistan and Iraq to improve intelligence and surveillance for U.S. ground troops. In response, the Air Force has gone from a handful of drones operating 24 hours a day in early 2007 to 45 as of Tuesday.
Breedlove said that by January, the Air Force's drones will have logged a million hours of combat air patrols over war zones. The goal is to have 50 of the 24-hour air patrols operating by the end of Sept. 2011, and 65 by the same month in 2013.
The increase has strapped the Air Force, as it continues to look for ways to fund and staff the increase.
"The number one manning problem in our Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms," Breedlove told defense reporters at a breakfast Thursday. He said it takes from 180 to 200 people to fly and maintain one 24-hour drone patrol, staff its launch and recovery, and interpret and distribute the intelligence it gathers.
One effort to meet the growing workload includes the deployment of a new sensor technology that would allow drones to watch a broader area, and collect and dispense information from several locations at one time.