Congress Looks to Bolster USAF Drone Development in 2020

Congress approved relatively modest funding for the Air Force’s main drone programs in fiscal 2020 while continuing to endorse investments in new kinds of unmanned aircraft.

The MQ-9 Reaper, the remotely piloted workhorse that has defined Middle East combat over the past two decades, received about $850 million for the majority of its procurement, development, and modification efforts.

The Air Force had asked for three Reapers under the base budget and nine through the Overseas Contingency Operations account, but lawmakers provided $215 million to buy all 12 aircraft under the war expenses fund. It’s the smallest MQ-9 request in at least five years.

Lawmakers approved $92.2 million in base funding but withheld about $81 million because the next generation of ground control stations aren’t ready to use that money. They also allotted $254.4 million for Reaper modifications while cutting about $100 million for the high-definition, multispectral AN/DAS-4 sensor. Other retrofits are delayed as well, according to the 2020 defense spending legislation approved in December.

Congress also green-lit $127.3 million for research and development related to the MQ-9. However, it said USAF requested about $28 million too much for upgrades.

The Air Force didn’t ask to buy any newly built RQ-4 Global Hawks, a key high-altitude intelligence asset, in 2020. But the program received hundreds of thousands of dollars for spare parts, future upgrades, and other post-production needs. The House unsuccessfully tried to shrink research and development authorization.

Air Force Magazine reported in September that the service wanted to use Global Hawks to help test hypersonic weapons, while Foreign Policy said in November the RPA’s vulnerability against advanced adversaries could land it on the chopping block in future budgets. The RQ-4 had a rocky time in recent budgets as the Air Force weighed whether Global Hawks could replace the U-2 Dragon Lady, ultimately deciding to keep both.

Lawmakers offered the Air Force $12.2 million to buy more of the RQ-20B Puma, a small unmanned aerial vehicle that USAF began purchasing last year. They can be used for surveillance missions like base defense and can go into wet areas.

Meanwhile, congressional appropriators gave the Air Force an extra $100 million for the Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology project, which aims to build drones that cost less than older models and could therefore be more affordable to replace if lost in combat. Such aircraft could be deployed in swarms or as partners with more advanced jets.

Kratos’s XQ-58A Valkyrie is the centerpiece of LCAAT. It completed its third test flight with AFRL in October.

The congressional defense committees want the Air Force Secretary to submit a spending plan for LCAAT funding within the next few months.

Lawmakers also added $15 million to spur further development of a new drone that can fly for multiple days at a time. In December, the Air Force Research Laboratory flew an RPA dubbed the “Ultra Long Endurance Aircraft Platform” for two-and-a-half days. AFRL believes the aircraft could be ready for operations this year.