Over the next couple of months, those of us steeped in all things defense will be very busy developing insights and implications once PB13 comes out in early February. The best we can do until then is speculate on the long-term US defense strategy based on what we hear and read from key government and military leaders.
What we do know, and what has been stated by President Obama himself, is that there will be a large and substantial drawdown of US military forces across the board. Historically, each of the four services has shared the burden of reduced budgets. This time around, however, we should expect to see the Army bear the lion’s share. Since 2001 funding for the Army rose much more than that of the other services, due primarily to OCO (Overseas Contingency Operations) funding that supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the end of the Iraq war and with operations winding down in Afghanistan, OCO funding will continue to decrease. So, too, will the Army’s budget in a rather disproportionate rate vis-à-vis the Air Force or the Navy.
What does this mean for UAVs, you might ask? With a strategic shift from Europe to threats in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, the Air Force and the Navy become much more critical over the next 10-20 years. One program in particular, LRS (Long Range Strike), has been singled out as a “must have” for the Air Force in order to conduct campaigns in anti-access environments such as China, Iran and North Korea.
LRS is still very much on the drawing boards, but even now the defense industry is working with Air Force leadership to help develop program definition and ensure technology roadmaps are consistent with military needs (see this Boeing concept of LRS). More than likely, LRS will be a “family” of platforms that operate together and have integrated sensors, communications, etc. UAVs will be a key part of this family. In fact, many believe the actual LRS platform (or a derivative of one) will be optionally-manned. It makes perfect sense when one considers the vast ranges and loiter times necessary for future conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region.
Much more speculation to come, but one thing is for sure – UAVs will continue to be an essential part of any military budget conversation.