The Air Force wants to vastly expand its drone program over the next five years by doubling the number of pilots and deploying them to bases in California and elsewhere to give commanders better intelligence and more firepower.
The $3-billion plan, which must be approved by Congress, was unveiled Thursday after months of study that focused on a drone pilot force that commanders have described as overworked, undermanned and underappreciated.
The proposed expansion comes as the Pentagon has intensified airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria. Pilots and crews who operate the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers have struggled to meet a rising demand for aerial surveillance of war zones and other hot spots.
“Right now, 100% of the time, when a MQ-1 or MQ-9 crew goes in, all they do is combat,” said Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, which oversees drone operations. “So we really have to build the capacity.”