The Washington Post

As drones proliferate, Navy avoids the rush

With armed drones now deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, there’s huge demand in the U.S. military and CIA to acquire “hunter-killer” unmanned aircraft such as Predators and Reapers.

In the fall of 2009, the Navy took delivery of three new MQ-9 Reapers, a modernized version of the old Predators manufactured by General Atomics. It was the Navy’s first batch of Reapers, and all were deployed for their first mission to the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean.

The Reapers were equipped with especially advanced sensors and could stay aloft for 40 hours at a time, far longer than other models. The Navy and the U.S. Africa Command wanted to see how the drones would fare on long flights over open waters to search for pirates, as well as on secret counterterrorism missions to Somalia.

The Navy later added a fourth Reaper to its fleet in the Seychelles, which was manned by between 80 and 100 military personnel and contractors, according to Navy officials and diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

The Navy operated the drones for about 18 months -- long enough to get a taste of the technology and to decide that it wasn’t interested.

In March 2011, Navy personnel in Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, boxed up the automated birds with 66-foot wingspans and signed them over to the Air Force. Two of the boxes were shipped back to the United States, while the other two stayed on the island, according to a Navy official involved in the program.

With such a hot market for drones, why would the Navy want to get rid of them?

Amanda Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the Navy at the Pentagon, said the service originally acquired the Reapers so it could “learn lessons about unmanned aircraft operations in supporting maritime missions.”

“The demonstration’s objectives were met,” she added. “The Navy gave the platform and the mission back to the Air Force.”

Officials with the military’s Africa Command, which oversaw the Seychelles mission, dubbed Operation Ocean Look, said they were pleased with how things turned out. “It was deemed a success,” said Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman, a spokesman for the Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany.

The Navy has taken some knocks over the years for resisting the onrush of drone technology. More drones mean less money to buy traditional manned aircraft, and fewer jobs for pilots. In that respect, many naval aviators are just as skeptical of drones as their brethren in the Air Force once were. Attitudes in the Air Force, though, have shifted since 2008, when then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the civilian and military leaders of the Air Force, partly because he was unhappy that they didn’t move more quickly to send drones to the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although it no longer owns any Reapers, the Navy is not abandoning the drone business entirely. It’s placing its bet on more expensive Global Hawks, a high-altitude surveillance aircraft that will eventually replace the Cold War-era U-2 spy planes. It’s also investing heavily in the X-47B, a combat drone designed to take off and land on aircraft carriers. That model isn’t scheduled to deploy until 2018.

Meanwhile the Air Force has unboxed its early Christmas presents from the Navy and resumed Reaper flights from the Seychelles this month, Stockman said.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.



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