Report: U.S. Military Needs More Drones, Not Better Ones

American military involvement in Afghanistan is winding down. The production run of the MQ-1 Predator, an unmanned surveillance aircraft adapted to carry missiles and strike targets from above, is over. This poses a question for military planners: What kind of drone will the U.S. Air Force need next? A new report, published last Friday by the think tank Rand Corporation, says the answer is more of the same.

Rand researchers used a computer simulation to test three drone concepts of varying size, plus the existing MQ-9 Reaper. The tests focused on the drones’ ability to destroy a moving target. The Reaper, it’s worth noting, is an evolution of the MQ-1 Predator, and has already fulfilled this role in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other countries where the U.S. operates drones.

Here are the lessons learned, in handy bullet point format.

  • No one drone is best at everything
  • More drones are better than one drone
  • Overall, the MQ-9 Reaper currently in service does its job the best
  • Improving Reaper sensors is probably an easier and fix than designing a new drone for the job

Rather than calculate whether or not a drone concept carried sufficient weapons to destroy a target, the test rated the ability of a drone to track a target until a weapon was available—a distinction that gave the smaller drones, which have a harder time carrying weapons, a fair shot. The logic behind this is that if a smaller drone can follow a vehicle for long enough, another vehicle, such as a bomber or a tank, could step in to destroy it.

Here’s the description of the role, in pitch-perfect, sterile bureaucratese:

The sensor systems used in the simulation varied by the size of the drone, and that had a major impact on the results. Smaller drones, with lighter and fewer sensors, had to fly below cloud cover, or else risk losing targets, but larger drones could fly above clouds and still track vehicles just fine. The heart of the report analyzes specific sensors, weather combinations, and tracking patterns, but the real meat of it comes at the end, when the authors discuss how many drones it takes to successfully complete a mission.

Reapers, and most other large drones, are capable of tracking and destroying targets on their own, and get even better at it when used in pairs. Smaller drones are sometimes successful when flying alone, but their effectiveness improves greatly when used in twos and threes. And yet, even the improved abilities of three small drones working together usually isn’t enough to match a single Reaper. This is especially true in difficult, foggy or cloudy weather, and at night, which is when the Air Force prefers to launch drone strikes.

There’s one huge caveat on all this:

If that assumption is wrong, it doesn’t matter how many Reapers are used; getting accurate information to identify a target remains the most important and challenging part of America’s targeted killing campaign.