Will Chuck Hagel Stand Up to the Drone Lobby?


U.S. Central Command has released some interesting numbers on the performance of modern air systems in Afghanistan; the data do not auger well for our defenses in the next decade, nor for the suitability of the man who appears likely to be the next secretary of defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel — his admirable iconoclasm toward some national security dogmas notwithstanding.

With the Department of Defense budget looking at no real growth or even reductions in the next few years, there will be a clear need for defense systems that offer more performance for less cost. The data from Afghanistan on what drones are contributing to the war there show that we are getting little but paying a lot, the reverse of what we will need in the future. These data notwithstanding, drones are the embodiment of what conventional wisdom in Washington holds to be the wave of the future for air power — the quintessence of the high tech cutting edge that the pundits want more and more of and just the kind of myth that politicians appointed to senior executive branch positions fall for time and time again.

The Pentagon’s new leadership needs the wit to recognize that the conventional wisdom on these (and other) systems can be badly wrong, and it needs the moral courage and political dexterity to act, standing up to the embedded material and intellectual special interests in the Pentagon, Congress, and think tanks that leap to the defense of these systems time after time. Without such brains, guts, skill, and, especially, persistence in the next Pentagon leader, our defenses are in for a rough ride — downhill — in coming years. In short, we need real deeds from a tough, no-nonsense executive, not just interesting, sometimes iconoclastic words.

The Air Force component of CENTCOM (AFCENT) releases numbers to the public each month on Air Force and allied sorties and weapon releases in Operation Enduring Freedom (which mostly means the war in Afghanistan) for drones and manned aircraft. (Data on CIA drone activities in Pakistan and elsewhere are not included.)

The released data are bad news for drone advocates. They show that in the first eleven months of 2012, the U.S. and NATO forces involved in Afghanistan conducted 1,505 air-to-ground “strike sorties” — i.e., those that involved the release of at least one weapon. A total of 3,886 weapons were released on those strike sorties — 3,439 from manned aircraft and 447 from remotely piloted aircraft, or drones (namely, the MQ-1B Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper). In other words, the drones were responsible for just 11.5 percent of the air-to-ground weapons used in the war. Manned aircraft, such as the A-10F-16F-18AV-8B and B-1B, were responsible for the other 88.5 percent. Put simply, in the air war in Afghanistan — called by some “the Drone War” — drones did little better than 10 percent of the weapons delivery.

Little as they did in the first eleven months of 2012, they did even less in 2011, when manned aircraft released 5,117 weapons and drones released just 294 — or 5.4 percent of the total.

The AFCENT data is very sparse on allowing more meaningful comparisons between drones and manned aircraft in the Afghanistan war. AFCENT declined to provide this writer more detail, but it gave some useful data to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom. That data shows that in 2011, manned aircraft flew almost 24,000 of the total close air support sorties — whether a weapon was released or not — and they flew well over 17,000 in the first ten months of 2012. Drones flew 10,300 sorties in the same category in 2011 and 7,600 in 2012. Thus, the manned aircraft are responsible for about 70 percent of the total sorties in both years.

More importantly, manned aircraft are flying an even larger percentage of the strike sorties: aircraft performed 1,743 strike sorties, or 88 percent, in 2011 and over 1,100, or 82 percent, in the first ten months of 2012. Finally, for delivering numbers of weapons during a strike on a target, drones averaged 1.4 weapons per strike in 2012; aircraft averaged twice that.

Nor is there any basis to think that drones have been delivering weapons more accurately. According to DOD’s weapons tester, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the Reaper, for example, is capable of employing only two types of munitions: theAGM-AGM-114 laser-guided “Hellfire” missile and the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb. Manned aircraft carry a far greater variety, and while CENTCOM has not released the data, anecdotally it appears that most manned aircraft munitions are GPS-guided JDAMs, which have fewer limitations from clouds and weather and other causes than do the drones’ laser-guided munitions.

That the drones are responsible for such a small percentage of the air-to-ground war in Afghanistan is the natural result of their inherent limitations. Prominent among them is their tiny payload compared to manned aircraft: The “more capable” drone, the MQ-9 Reaper, carries roughly one-ninth to one-fourth the payload of an A-10 or an F-16.

Nor are the drones cheaper to buy and operate. Using the Air Force’s definition for all the components in a Reaper unit, they cost about $120 million to buy, compared to about $20 million for the original A-10 and about $55 million for a modern F-16. A Reaper “CAP,” or unit, costs about $20 million per year to operate, compared to $5.5 million for an A-10C for a year or $4.8 million for an F-16C.

In short, with drones like the iconic Reaper, our forces get less performance for more cost — compared to 35-year-old aircraft designs such as the A-10 and F-16.

These data notwithstanding, drones continue to be the darling of opinion in much of DODjournalism, and think tanksArticlesrepeatedly label Afghanistan as “the drone war,” and one think tank drone advocate even referred to the AFCENT information as a “powerful data point” in favor of drones being “here to stay.” They may, indeed, be here to stay, but that will be based on politics and hype, not performance in Afghanistan — and perhaps the affinity of some for what drones are doing in Pakistan and Yemen under CIA control.

Whoever is the next secretary of defense will face a choice. He or she can operate at the policy wonk level, as so many already have, ignoring these kinds of basic nuts and bolts data. When they do so, and are told by in-house advocates of drones (or F-35s, or Littoral Combat Ships, or C-130Js, or almost anything else) that the newest technology is cheap and effective, the secretaries of defense with policy wonk and/or political backgrounds have proven themselves to be undisposed to serious, informed questioning. They end up taking the advocates’ assertions at face value and acting on them.

The next steps in this process are as predictable as the sunrise: when some outsider suggests a budget cut, the DOD bureaucracies easily convince the secretary that their “affordable” and “effective” weapon systems will no longer be available. Then, the secretary proclaims the idea of insufficient resources for these pet rocks to be a “doomsday.” In doing so, facilitators of business as usual like Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta thoroughly isolate themselves from the fact that the additional cost and low performance of these systems is much of what is driving the budget beyond acceptable levels of spending.

It is easy for the in-house advocates to co-opt the secretary of defense when he or she comes from an institution like Congress, where rhetoric and appearances trump facts, especially if the words are articulated cleverly or forcefully.

Such superficiality is precisely the profile Senator Chuck Hagel had as a member of the Senate. He was frequently in the news saying something interesting, often against the dogma of the Republican Party or even American politics in general. But, quick, tell yourself something he actually did of consequence in the Senate — legislation or other important actions, not just words. Draw a blank? So did I, and I was watching up close and personal as a Republican Senate staffer for many of Hagel’s twelve years there. Beyond the rhetoric, his record is quite sparse.

At a time when its budget is declining and advocates, backed by generally accepted myths, press hard for their particular hobby horse to be protected while others go begging, the Pentagon needs someone with a demonstrated record as a tough, acutely well informed downsizer or as an accomplished infighter against the powerful bureaucracies that run free under politically oriented secretaries of defense. A talker, not a doer, Senator Hagel, no matter how much I may admire his politics, is not the right person.

This is not to say that the other publically mentioned candidates for the job would be better.

As a denizen of the think tank and policy world, Michelle Flournoy — as intelligent as she seems to be — has been operating in a world where soft-policy differences are the stock in trade, not bureaucratic fights down in the weeds over the quality of data on performance or costs. As the chief architect of DOD’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as the Pentagon’s under secretary of policy, she showed little interest in or understanding of how the building actually operates at the basic level.

As undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and then as deputy secretary of defense, Ashton Carter has shown little ability to master the bureaucracy. In fact, he let slide far more problems than he has done anything meaningful about. That is all too clearly the case with, for example, the Pentagon’s most expensive program ever — the F-35 — which remains both unaffordable and a gigantic performance disappointment after four years of Carter’s ministrations.

The vast chasm between conventional wisdom and reality on drones, their costs, and what is and is not working at the tactical level is replicated in myriad ways in the secretary of defense job portfolio — from assault rifles to missile defenses to arms control and especially to questions of war and peace. What we need least is yet another dilettante who specializes in politics of the moment and fancy words.

Winslow T. Wheeler is director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information, which recently moved to the Project on Government Oversight. For 31 years he worked on national security issues for U.S. senators from both political parties and for the Government Accountability Office.

Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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