Small Wars Journal

Bin Laden mission signals the end for the Predator drone

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.



Guess it depends on who is defending the airspace and how rapidly, like Libya, it can be rendered safe. I would wager that Reapers/Predators are overflying Libya now.

Do the needs of month(s)-long major combat operations supersede requirements for longer term mop-up and stability operations to finalize the achieved results...something we failed to do after Desert Storm and did poorly after OIF/OEF I. What about pre-war deterrence and indicator-monitoring such as in Desert Shield when deployment is occurring to an adjacent nation?

Nearly no nation can maintain persistent air defenses or air combat capability against the U.S. and allies...especially after F-35 is fielded in numbers. An even cursory look at open source literature indicates we could rather easily create safe corridors using jamming and capabilities to detect and target radar emissions.

Plus, I would offer that the Marines continue to spend an extraordinary amount on the non-stealthy MV-22. It flies at 10,000' in Afghanistan, but obviously would not in a radar air defense environment. Due to its vertical rotors at speed, it really is doubtful, IMHO, that it could fly low enough to evade radar air defenses. Does that mean we should not invest any further in MV-22, or AH-1Z, or AH-64D, or A-10C, or LAAR, or EA-18G...all non-stealthy aircraft.

In fact, we killed Comanche because it was perceived that a stealthy helicopter was not required, especially since lower-priced helicopter-alternatives can fly low and slow enough to underfly radar. Why would we need a fleet of nothing but very-expensive stealthy UNMANNED aircraft.

The low observability and survivability measures we employ on some manned aircraft often vastly exceed prices paid for unmanned aircraft. While necessary because pilots are on board, the cost consequences can be extraordinary. When we lose a F-22 or B-2 in peacetime or combat, aside from potentially tragic loss of life, we also lose the equivalent of 25-200 Predator-size UAS in cost.

Sam (not verified)

Thu, 05/19/2011 - 9:09am

It depends on who and where we expect to be surveiling. It's far from certain that we will be using drones in defended airspace more frequently than we do now.

Several issues with Mr. Haddick's analysis. Gary Powers found out what happens when you habitually fly aircraft over hostile territory in peacetime. In this case, given the Pakistan raid lost tail rotor section, imagine losing our top of the line stealth UAS over China or Russia.

We can fly Global Hawk/BAMS, Reapers, Predator/Gray Eagle for countless deterrent-years at reasonable cost along the borders/oceans of any nation-state. Were deterrence to fail, believe we would find Iran and North Korea woefully-equipped to shoot down most UAS with air defenses. Both their fighter fleets also are pretty pathetic, as will be any rogue nation with sanctions imposed against it.

Next, after a week or two of cruise missiles/MALD/JASSM-ER, UCAS/MC-X/F-22/F-35, and next gen bomber attacks and gained air supremacy, non-stealthy UAS would be completely survivable against even near-peer threat nations. Only a few newer hidden mobile radar air defense systems would threaten them, and the need to place multiple sorties over the threat searching for targets like TBM and C2 nodes would supersede the loss of a few non-stealthy UAS.

Emitting air defenses are soon dead air defenses and UAS lost to SAMs mean one fewer missile to threaten manned aircraft. In addition, it's easy to envision jamming UAS to protect manned aircraft that simultaneously would safeguard nearby UAS. Recall these are unmanned aircraft, so expensive stealth features are not as crucial. Lower cost UAS still excel at the dull, dirty, and dangerous missions that we would not expect manned aircraft pilot's to endure.

Finally, believe the Arab Spring illustrates that dictators have learned allowing protestors to have their way won't work. Thus, even if we THINK we won't endure another Iraq/Afghanistan, the simple fact remains that a "raiding" operations and AirSea power alone would do almost nothing to change regimes and rogue state tendencies.

Item: North Korea would not be instantly pacificied nor its dictators killed by raiding and airpower alone, with no period of ground attack and subsequent stability operations

Item: Saddam Hussein obviously was not deposed by the no-fly zone

Item: Punitive air attacks against Syria or Iran would be unlikely to end oppression or result in regime change, or end their nuclear programs. Israel already tried in Syria.

Item: Appeasement of Egyptian crowd's has led to a current mess and a not-so-bad autocrats downfall, and all adjacent bad dictators/autocrats see it.

Item: It remains to be seen what will occur in's not looking good though.

Ground combat remains an essential part of Joint Warfare to depose leaders, force hidden enemies into the open or kill them in close combat in complex terrain with less collateral damage. The stability operations that follow will be equally necessary and non-stealthy UAS once again will prove their mettle and cost-efficiency.


Wed, 05/18/2011 - 8:01pm

I'm not so sure this is as good an idea as it may sound like at first glance. I imagine that the stealthy drones are much more expensive and probably don't last as long due to the materials they are made of. We need to figure out when and how many we think we will need and base our buy on that. It makes no sense to buy these platforms to do stuff like they are doing in Afghanistan because we'll fly the wings off of a much more expensive asset for no gain in performance. We have a tendency to say, we need X capability in the future, so let's make everything like that, when really we don't need everything to have X capability right now or in this role. I think we can make money by continuing to have different platforms for different roles at which they are most cost effective.


Wed, 05/18/2011 - 7:06pm

This is an interesting and important point that we need to understand. I think that the US should shift its resources from procuring these aircraft to developing UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles). With more state and even non-state actors acquiring aircraft, UAV's such as the Reapers and Predators will not be nearly as effective.

However, I do not share the exact same position for the Global Hawk. That UAV is known for its superior reconnaissance capabilities. However, despite being a few years old, it needs to be either upgraded or replaced with something more effective. Moore's Law will always be a pain with the development of UAVs.