The U.S. military needs to beef up its unmanned aerial systems arsenal to be able to fight two wars simultaneously against advanced adversaries China and Russia, analysts say.
The National Defense Strategy identifies those two nations as great power competitors and the top threats to U.S. national security. Nevertheless, the document established what is essentially a one-war force sizing construct, experts cautioned in a recent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments report titled, "Five Priorities for the Air Force's Future Combat Air Force."
"Preparing to prevent China and Russia from succeeding in major acts of aggression should be a fundamental force design priority," study authors Mark Gunzinger, Carl Rehberg and Lukas Autenried wrote.
To mitigate capacity shortfalls and more cost-effectively develop a force sized for a two-front war, the service should aggressively pursue new drones that could be used for a wider range of mission sets in a broader set of threat environments, the airpower analysts recommended.
"The Air Force should develop new concepts for employing existing and future UAS, including MQ-9s, lower-cost attritable UAS, and other unmanned systems that could be delivered in the near term," the report said.
"In the long term, more advanced UAS designs that are capable of penetrating contested environments could team with manned stealth aircraft to conduct counter-air, long-range standoff area surveillance, strikes, electronic warfare and other combat operations" as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, it added.
Examples of current and future drones that could be procured at relatively low unit cost include: attritable Gremlins small UAS, $700 million or less; an attritable medium UAS, $1 million or less; attritable Valkyrie medium- to large-sized platforms, $2 million to $3 million; MQ-9 Reapers, about $20 million; and Avenger extended-range systems, about $25 million.
In comparison, a manned F-16 fighter jet costs about $70 million to procure, according to the report.
In addition to being less expensive to buy, drones are cheaper to operate than manned aircraft if manufactured in...