Pentagon increases drone fleet in new budget

By Julian E. Barnes, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON – U.S. defense officials outlined plans to double production of unmanned aircraft, part of an expanded 2011 budget unveiled Monday shifting the Pentagon’s focus away from major wars and toward international hot spots and natural disasters, as provided under a new strategy document.

The budget, which will grow 7.1 percent to $708 billion in 2011, is in step with calls by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in recent years to focus on current U.S. wars, invest in needed technology and jettison expendable or costly equipment programs.

Those goals also are contained in a new strategy document called the Quadrennial Defense Review, which seeks to end the Defense Department’s old focus on developing the capability of fighting two major wars simultaneously. The review was issued Monday.

The Pentagon is one of the few U.S. agencies, mostly dealing with national security, cleared to receive budget increases under a spending freeze ordered by President Barack Obama.

Also receiving an increase was the State Department, where officials outlined a 10 percent increase, to $52.8 billion, for diplomatic and international aid efforts. Officials said the increase would “rebalance civilian and military roles” in U.S. foreign policy.

The Pentagon budget omits funding for controversial programs traditionally favored by lawmakers. Gates said funding has been cut for the C-17 cargo plane, assembled by Boeing Corp. in California, representing a savings of $2.5 billion.

Gates said in a news conference that Obama would veto congressional approval of C-17 funding or spending for a second engine for the military F-35 fighter, an aircraft program that has faced a series of problems, missing development benchmarks and facing cost overruns.

Gates announced Monday he is firing the officer in charge of the program and withholding $614 million from Lockheed Martin, the prime F-35 contractor, and said he is appointing a new general or admiral to oversee the program.

Underscoring the Pentagon’s focus on unmanned aircraft in its 2011 budget, the Air Force for the first time is proposing the acquisition of more unmanned aircraft than combat aircraft.

The Air Force will double its production of the MQ-9 Reaper, a bigger, more heavily armed version of the Predator, from 24 to 48. The Army will also buy 26 extended-range Predators.

Overall, spending on the Reapers and Predators, which are built by General Atomics of San Diego, will grow from $877.5 million in 2010 to $1.4 billion in 2011.

The expansion will allow the military to increase unmanned patrols – the number of planes in the air at once – to 65, up from its current limit of 37.

Beside their use in international hot spots, Gates said drones also are useful for such efforts as countering narcotics trafficking and helping in natural disasters.

“We will continue to see significant growth for some years into the future even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually wind down,” Gates said. “The more we have used them, the more we have identified their potential in a broader and broader set of circumstances.”