Editor’s Note: It’s true that the RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) community doesn’t get as much love as others, but the aircraft fielded there play a vital role in our national security interests. Drones are often the most called-upon assets in theater, given their ability to conduct ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance), as well as prosecute time-sensitive targets on their own by employing precision-guided munitions.

A record number of Air Force drones crashed in major accidents last year, documents show, straining the U.S. military’s fleet of robotic aircraft when it is in more demand than ever for counterterrorism missions in an expanding array of war zones.

Driving the increase was a mysterious surge in mishaps involving the Air Force’s newest and most advanced “hunter-killer” drone, the Reaper, which has become the Pentagon’s favored weapon for conducting surveillance and airstrikes against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other militant groups.

Photo courtesy of AP/Reuters
Photo courtesy of AP/Reuters

The Reaper has been bedeviled by a rash of sudden electrical failures that have caused the 21/2-ton drone to lose power and drop from the sky, according to accident-investigation documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator, but have been unable to pinpoint why it goes haywire or devise a permanent fix.

All told, 20 large Air Force drones were destroyed or sustained at least $2 million in damage in accidents last year, the worst annual toll ever, according to a Washington Post investigation. The Pentagon has shrouded the extent of the problem and kept details of most of the crashes a secret.

The aircraft losses pose another challenge for the Air Force as it struggles to provide sufficient drone coverage for counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Mali and Cameroon, among other countries.

Despite a surge in requests from field commanders, the Air Force last year had to curtail its drone combat missions by 8 percent because of an acute shortage of pilots for the remote-controlled aircraft. Things have gotten so bad that the Air Force is offering retention bonuses of up to $125,000 to its drone pilots, who have long complained of overwork.

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The Air Force also has contracted out more drone missions to private companies to meet what one general called “a virtually insatiable appetite” from military commanders for airborne surveillance.

While Air Force leaders have publicly bemoaned a lack of personnel and resources, they have said little about the high number of drone crashes, a long-standing vulnerability that worsened substantially last year.

Ten Reapers were badly damaged or destroyed in 2015, at least twice as many as in any previous year, according to Air Force safety data.

The Reaper’s mishap rate — the number of major crashes per 100,000 hours flown — more than doubled compared with 2014. The aircraft, when fully equipped, cost about $14 million each to replace.

Photo courtesy of Washington Post.
Photo courtesy of Washington Post.

The Air Force’s other primary drone model, the Predator, also suffered heavy casualties.

An older and less capable version of the Reaper, the Predator was involved in 10 major accidents last year. That’s the most since 2011, when the U.S. military was simultaneously surging troops into Afghanistan and withdrawing ground forces from Iraq.

Although the Defense Department has a policy to disclose all major aircraft mishaps, it did not publicly report half of the 20 Reaper and Predator accidents last year.

In five other cases, U.S. military officials provided confirmation only after local authorities reported the crashes or enemy fighters posted photos of the wreckage on social media.

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According to the military, only one drone was downed by hostile forces: a Predator that was hit by Syrian air defenses near Latakia on March 17.

All but one of the 20 Air Force drone accidents last year occurred overseas. Six drones crashed in Afghanistan. Four crashed in the Horn of Africa, near a U.S. military base in Djibouti. Three crashed in Iraq. There were also crashes in Kuwait, Turkey, Syria and Libya.

In two cases, Air Force officials would not identify the country where the mishaps occurred.

In addition to the Air Force, the Army operates its own drone fleet. It is preparing to expand the number of combat missions it flies to help compensate for the Air Force’s cutbacks.

Last year, the Army reported four major drone crashes, each involving the Gray Eagle — a model identical to the Predator. Three of the Army’s accidents occurred in Afghanistan. One happened in Iraq.

Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.
Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.

Although the military’s drone programs are largely unclassified, the Obama administration rarely discusses details of the key role they fill in its counterterrorism strategy. The CIA runs its own drone operations on a covert basis, and the secrecy surrounding those missions often seeps into the Pentagon.

Lt. Gen. Robert P. Otto, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for intelligence and surveillance programs, acknowledged in an interview that there has been a spike in Reaper accidents.

Many cases remain under investigation, but Otto and other Air Force officials blamed the Reaper’s flawed starter-generator for causing at least six major crashes since December 2014.

“We’re looking closely at that to determine what is the core issue there,” Otto said.

Although the drone pilot shortage has compelled the Air Force to reduce the number of combat missions, Otto said the aircraft mishaps have not forced additional cuts. The Air Force has enough replacement drones on hand, he said, and already had orders in place to buy dozens more Reapers over the next few years.

“Any impact to operations has been negligible to barely noticeable,” he said.

Field commanders, however, have long complained of a drone deficit. In March, the four-star commanders of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Africa both told Congress that the Pentagon has provided less than one-quarter of the drones, other aircraft and satellites that they need for reconnaissance and surveillance missions.

“The Predator has been our most effective weapon in our campaign against the global jihadists,” said Michael G. Vickers, the Pentagon’s former top civilian intelligence official, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Jan. 12. But he cautioned that the size of the drone fleet “will remain a critical limiting factor in the conduct of our campaign.”

The full article from the Washington Post can be viewed here.

(Featured Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)