Today's Washington Post discussed how the CIA used a stealthy drone -- the RQ-170 Sentinel -- to collect overhead imagery and signals intelligence on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The RQ-170 was dubbed "the Beast of Kandahar" after it was spotted at the nearby military airbase as early as 2007, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology. Intelligence preparation for the bin Laden raid demonstrated the requirement for a persistent overhead reconnaissance platform that also had to be stealthy. This requirement for the bin Laden mission foreshadows a rapid change in required drone capabilities, which implies a need to change the government's current drone investment plans. After just coming into their own, the Pentagon and CIA should consider ending purchases of the non-stealthy Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk drones and redirecting those funds to their stealthy drone successors.
It seemed very odd that the U.S. Air Force and CIA would need a stealthy drone like the RQ-170 in Afghanistan. The Taliban have no anti-aircraft capability against the non-stealthy Predators and Reapers, whose rapidly increasingly numbers over the past few years have resulted in growing pressure against the insurgents. Over Pakistan, the government had granted permission to the CIA to operate Predator drones from a base in Pakistan against insurgents in Waziristan, who also have no anti-aircraft capability. With Predators and Reapers covering the insurgent target sets on both sides of the border, what was the mission of the stealthy RQ-170?
There may have been several, one of which we now know was to spy on areas of Pakistan off-limits to the CIA's Predators. The intelligence collection requirement for the bin Laden raid appears to have created a particularly intense demand for the RQ-170's unique capabilities; bin Laden's compound, probably by design, was located in an area where the Pakistani government would have an air defense system to resist snooping. Thus the CIA's need for a stealthy drone that could evade Pakistani air defenses.
The Pentagon and CIA made large investments over the past decade in Predators and Reapers in response to urgent battlefield demands in Iraq and Afghanistan. These platforms were useful against insurgents with no air defense capability. There will still be a role in the future for Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk, platforms that can survive only in completely permissive air defense environments. But in the future, the Pentagon and CIA should expect the parameters of the bin Laden intelligence preparation mission -- the need for persistent overhead observation of targets with air defenses -- to be the rule, not the exception. The Pentagon and CIA should thus ramp up investments in platforms that can persist in defended areas and ramp down the investment in those that can't -- like Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk.
The Pentagon's FY 2012 budget request includes $4.8 billion for the legacy Reaper and Global Hawk and other smaller drone systems. The government's investments in stealthy platforms like RQ-170 and others are hidden in various black budget accounts. Plans for the long-range strike family of systems are also related to this issue. But with the war effort in Afghanistan peaking, demand for vulnerable non-stealthy drones is also likely peaking. Meanwhile, a shortfall in stealthy reconnaissance capacity seems apparent. Funding for more Reapers and Global Hawks in the FY 2012 and future budgets should go instead to their stealthy successors, which will soon be in great demand.