How many drones does the US have?

As part of our “Drone Economies” project, last week we traveled to Washington DC to interview various people in government about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).

One message that came through is that there is currently a slowdown if not pause in UAV acquisition. Yes, well known systems such as the Predator (MQ-1) have been retired (the DoD only has 228 in inventory as of last summer). But there’s also a pause more generally. So how many drones does the DoD (excluding CIA) possess and what can we expect going forward?

The DoD has over 11,000 UAVs, with the vast majority of these in Groups 1, 2 or 3 (small drones), as this figure illustrates:


DoD spending on UAVs is also decreasing for several reasons. First, their operational deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq is no longer required as the US military withdraws from those regions (even if it is increasing in Syria). Second, the Predator and its big brother the Reaper are not very good at what the military calls the “A2/AD” environment, or anti-access, aerial denial: contested airspace. Over Afghanistan there is nothing to shoot down the UAVs, but in other environments (eg the infamous “pivot to Asia”) this is a different story.

Here’s a recent spending chart, including R&D as well as procurement:


(PB = President’s Budget, OCO = overseas contingency operations, ie wars).

It would be worthwhile going through the recent DoD budget requests and enacted amounts to update this chart.

What factors would prompt the pause to be alleviated? We heard the same things over and over again:

1. Ability to operate in A2/AD. UAVs with defensive capabilities (might include stealth, armaments or flying at higher levels without the need to descend to take surveillance–as some UAVs currently have to do) are required. Some of this might be to do with the sensors. Several of our interviewees referred to UAVs as “trucks,” to de-emphasize the UAV itself as simply a general purpose transport. It’s what it carries and can do that is important (whether manned or unmanned).

2. Autonomy. Despite their name, UAVs are not really unmanned (including the ground control station [GCS] some UASs require over 100 personnel to operate), and are only cheaper to the extent that they eliminate or vastly reduce the human element.

3. UCAVs. Unmanned combat air vehicles, such as the Northrup-Grumman X-47. The future of this seems less certain. Certainly the Navy is pursuing this at the moment with its UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Surveillance and Strike) program. But as I understand there has been controversy about the program.

4. The “smalls.” Several of our sources emphasized the small UAVs as the most viable way forward (Groups 1-3). They already comprise most of the UAVs by number (about 10,000) in the DoD inventory.

Despite all this, we were actually in town to talk about commercial uses of UAVs! We’ll be going through our interviews and notes and hopefully writing it up as a paper.

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