Even after being cut by hundreds of million, fiscal year 2019 is set to be the Pentagon’s spendiest year for drones.
The drone budget request, dispersed among branches and nestled in other Department of Defense programs, topped $9 billion. As finalized in the conference budget minibus passed by the Senate Sept. 18, that drone budget is down by $400 million, but is still the largest budget for drones since the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard University started tracking funding for uncrewed machines.
The most significant cuts to drone spending came in the form of a $200 million reduction in funds for research, development, testing and evaluation of the MQ-25 Stingray tanker drone. The decreased funding here is likely more about Boeing having a prototype on hand, rather than a lack of interest in the program.
The MQ-9 Reaper program was cut by about $160 million, which means five fewer aircraft. Funding for the Navy’s counter-drone directed energy weapon, the Laser Weapon System, was also reduced by $90 million.
“They also cut Hellfires for the Air Force,” says Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard University. The AGM-114 Hellfire is an anti-tank missile also used in an anti-personnel capacity, and one of the many drone-related programs tracked by the Center.
“The explanation given for that is that that it was previously funded requirement. They funded a lot for Hellfires last year. So I’m guessing they have a bunch left over.”
The change wasn’t all reductions. Funding for RQ-4 modernization was increased by $100 million to a total of $127 million. The Submarine Tactical Warfare System’s budget was increased by $4.5 million to fund more development in a submarine-launched uncrewed aerial vehicle. Two different DARPA programs for artificial intelligence related to drones and ISR were added by the Senate, for a total of $40 million in new drone AI funding.
Noticeably unchanged in the budget revisions is the funding allocation for the multiple small quadcopter programs. Inherently low-cost, these smaller drones make up the vast majority of uncrewed airframes set to be purchased in the coming year, and if they prove as useful to a conventional military as they have to non-state actors and irregular forces, we can expect to see more of them annually.
Even after the cuts, the new drone budget is up by about $1.5 billion over the purchase outlay for 2018. Drone war is no longer a novelty or a sideshow in modern battlefields. It’s just part of war now.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.