The proclamation that the Reaper (and, by implication similar drones) is the future of warfare bound to yield a revolutionary transformation in combat doesn’t seem to stand up to a reality scrub. The evidence is out there for anyone willing to hunt it down and and compare, as they like to say at the Pentagon, apples to apples.
Bottom line: the Reaper is more costly to both buy and fly than the manned aircraft it is commonly matched against. The margins are not even close — the Reaper is approximately twice the price to acquire compared to a contemporary F-16 fighter-bomber, and up to six times the cost of an A-10 close-support aircraft. Reaper’s annual operating costs are roughly four times the cost to operate an F-16 or an A-10. (See Part 2)
In acquisition since 2002 and in combat operations since 2007, the Reaper (MQ-9) is a prominent example of drone technology that can be assessed for cost effectiveness using publically available empirical data. (See Part 1)
Based on Defense Department data on the cost to acquire and operate, a Reaper unit costs at least $120.8 million to buy and $25.6 million per year to operate (in 2012 dollars). A substantial part of the high cost to acquire and operate a Reaper “CAP” is the considerable material and human infrastructure it requires, including ground control stations, satellite links and at least 171 human operators and support personnel. (See Part 2)
Reaper is not survivable in the presence of even minimal air defenses; it is far less survivable than manned aircraft, such as the A-10 which has demonstrated high survivability in air combat since 1991. (In the presence of air defenses, Reaper would require manned escort aircraft, thereby removing the assumed advantage of being unmanned.)
Reaper’s ability to carry weapons, while a vast improvement over Predator, compares unfavorably to typical comparison aircraft, such as the A-10 and the F-16. The comparison involves not just payload, but also diversity of weapons and delivery methods. A more sophisticated analysis comparing Reaper to the A-10, for example, would surely lead to an even more negative relative assessment of Reaper. (See Part 2)
While Reaper possesses the ability to loiter in the air far longer than manned aircraft on a typical mission, the ability of Reaper to find targets is limited and problematic. Empirical comparisons to simple, even primitive, manned aircraft used in border surveillance with FLIR technology demonstrates that Reaper is, again, more expensive to operate and, importantly, less effective in finding and identifying targets. The quality of the imagery received on the ground from drone sensors is too poor even to reliably make distinctions between friendly combat loaded Marines from irregulars with a quite different physical profile. (See Part 3)
While many understand that drones, such as Reaper, have a high crash rate, the actual rate may be significantly higher than is commonly understood. While public and DOD data are incomplete and an audit of each tail number produced is called for, the total number of Predator and Reaper crashes may already be as many as 100, possibly more. (See Part 4)
Defense Department usage data verify that individual Reaper air vehicles are not available for use more than once or twice a week: An operational availability rate that for a manned aircraft would be deemed unacceptable. (See Part 4)
The wide and enthusiastic popularity for Reaper, and other drones, in the Defense Department, the Executive branch, Congress, the mainstream media and think tanks is not rationally explained by Reaper’s poor to mediocre performance on the operating dimensions measured here over the past week.
Instead, the drone’s unique characteristic — that it is manned from the ground not the air — cloaks it in a technology that seems to intrigue policy makers. It gives them a self-perceived license to employ the system over ambiguous or hostile territory (such as Pakistan, and Iran) . The consequences of that use, while not addressed in this series, appear significant and controversial, and will become moreso in the future. An empirical study of the relevant data by a fully independent entity, including all classified data, is clearly in order.
Reaper’s unique attribute has charmed technologists who proclaim that a revolution in warfare is at hand when the data clearly demonstrate otherwise.
Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. He is also the editor of the anthology “The Pentagon Labyrinth: 10 Short Essays to Help You Through It”.