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-10, F-16, F-18, AV-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.