The US Air Force wants to vastly expand its drone program over the next five years by doubling the number of pilots and deploying them to bases in California and elsewhere to give commanders better intelligence and more firepower.
The $3-billion plan, which must be approved by Congress, was unveiled Thursday after months of study that focused on a drone pilot force that commanders have described as overworked, undermanned and underappreciated.
The proposed expansion comes as the Pentagon has intensified airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Pilots and crews who operate the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers have struggled to meet a rising demand for aerial surveillance of war zones and other hot spots.
“Right now, 100% of the time, when a MQ-1 or MQ-9 crew goes in, all they do is combat,” said Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, which oversees drone operations. “So we really have to build the capacity.”
The Air Force wants to add 75 Reapers to the current fleet of 175 Reapers and 150 Predators. It also would increase the number of flying squadrons from eight to as many as 17, and add up to 3,500 new pilots, sensor operators and other personnel.
Officials said they anticipate sending most of the new drone pilots and crews to bases across the country.
Those considered most likely include Beale Air Force Base near Sacramento, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson, Joint Base Pearl Harbor – Hickam near Honolulu, and Langley Air Force Base near Newport News, Va.
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