The Pentagon has revealed it is planning to increase its use of drones by around 50% over the next few years as it looks to combat new security challenges.
The US Army and civilian contractors will put more into the air after the Air Force – which had been running around 65 combat missions a day – asked to cut that number to 60 because of workforce stress.
But that figure does not meet the demands of top military commanders.
Senior military officials have said that while drones have largely been used to target terrorists and collect intelligence over combat zones, those needs could shift.
Incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, is among military leaders who have warned that Russia could become America’s most serious security threat.
China’s rising military power and its program of island building in the South China Sea has also triggered an increased demand for US surveillance and intelligence across the Pacific.
Under the proposals, the Air Force would continue to provide 60 daily drone missions, while the Army would carry out 16 and US Special Operations Command and civilian contractors would do up to 10 each.
Air Force Major General JD Harris Jr, vice commander of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, said: “It’s the combatant commanders, they need more.
“They’re tasked to do our nation’s business overseas so they feel that stress on them, and it’s not getting better.
“There’s just not enough of the Air Force to go around.”
He added: “Five, six years ago, we over matched our system and we said we could provide more than what we were capable of providing on a sustained basis.
“We actually decimated our training units. We pulled crews that were instructors that should be training the next round of students, and we put them on the operational lines flying missions overseas just to provide everything we could to the combatant commanders.”
Civilian contractors would only fly surveillance drones under the proposals.
It remains unclear how the Pentagon would pay for the additional patrols.
Officials have said some of the cost could be met by war funding – money held in a separate account approved by Congress.
That account has funded some of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as counter-terrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa.
In the last decade, the Air Force has switched fighter pilots to controlling unmanned Predator and Reaper drones as it expanded the number of flights over Iraq and Afghanistan.
The use of drones has proved controversial – a report earlier this month revealed 57 US-led airstrikes on militants in Iraq and Syria had killed 459 civilians.
(c) Sky News 2015