The Air Force has increasingly noted that current unmanned drones—specifically Predators and Reapers—can’t survive in denied airspace. As the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force said last November in arguing for new procurement programs:
One has to remember that the current ISR fleet … is absolutely a permissive fleet. The Predator, the Reaper, the Global Hawk will not fly in contested [airspace] and will certainly not fly in denied airspace.
But the stealth drone’s crash shows even the fanciest drones will still have problems in all kinds of airspace, regardless of whether it was shot down or crashed for some other reason. (So do manned aircraft for that matter). Our recent report on procurement suggested why this dynamic has budgetary implications: the Air Force has had a predilection for pursuing high-end systems. The Reaper itself is a fancier version of the Predator.
We don’t mean to second-guess the Air Force’s operational trade-offs between quality and quantity. Those trade-offs are real. But those operational trade-offs also have budgetary trade-offs. Even in flush times for the defense budget—like the last decade, resources are still finite and prevent us from getting as much quantity as we may like. If we romanticize what high-end capabilities can do operationally (like never crash), we can cloud our decisions on budgetary trade-offs. Those trade-offs will only be exacerbated in the new era of budgetary austerity.