Sowing the Next Reaper

The Air Force is struggling to balance the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow in its remotely piloted aircraft fleet, said Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh. “Everything we’re investing in now” with regard to RPAs “will be used in the current fight,” Welsh told Air Force Magazine in an interview following the release of the Pentagon’s Fiscal 2016 budget request to Congress last week. The problem is, “we can’t get ahead of the requirement for today’s fight,” he said. The Air Force is perpetually playing catch-up in trying to build enough RPAs and train enough operators to meet the current demand, while still having enough resources left over to build a future-generation RPA capability. The intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance requirement in US Pacific Command’s area of responsibility “is not the same as our requirement” in US Central Command’s AOR, he noted. “They need different types of sensors; different types of platforms,” he said. The MQ-9 Reaper will “help us in part of this mission area. It won’t help us in every part of this mission area,” said Welsh. He declined to discuss work on a follow-on system that might be survivable in contested environments, which the Reaper is not. But “this mission area will continue to grow. … We’re a little past the Wright Flyer stage, now,” he said. It will be a “trick” to transition from the existing ISR force “writ large, to the force we need for tomorrow’s fight,” said Welsh. (See also Scientific Advisory Board Launches RPA Study, Others.)