Air Force not yet ready to trade in jet fighters for unmanned bombers.

Author:Erwin, Sandra I.

Much excitement has surrounded the deployment of the Air Force's newest attack aircraft, the Reaper, which happens to be a drone.

Air Force officials for months have celebrated the Reaper as a groundbreaking weapon that blends the "hunter" and the "killer" into a single package.

The enthusiasm for the Reaper, however, should not be misinterpreted as a sign that the Air Force is ready to trade in any of its F-16 jet fighters.

While the Reapers and the F-16s deployed in Iraq currently are doing the same job--searching for enemy targets and launching weapons the Air Force does not yet consider the unmanned attack aircraft to be in competition with conventional jet fighters.

Drones such as the Reaper are "reconnaissance platforms with some teeth," but they will not replace F-16s, said Maj. Gen. Mark D. Shackelford, director of global power programs at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.

The Reaper is a useful system to find fleeting targets, Shackelford said in an interview. "It allows us to compress the attack time without missing the opportunity."

But a major drawback of unmanned air vehicles is that they are far more vulnerable than manned combat jets, he said. Reapers do well in Iraq because the enemy there does not have long-range surface-to-air antiaircraft missiles. "In a high threat surface-to-air missile environment, current UAVs are not survivable."

In a larger sense, however, it is hard to see how aircraft such as the Reaper will not eventually challenge conventional fighter jets for Air Force procurement dollars. Under current plans, the Air Force will buy 60 to 80 Reapers during the next five years.

"Logically, over time, it would compete with manned fighters for some missions," said Barry D. Watts, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Air Force officials may not...

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