Troop surge to bring more orders for unmanned aircraft

As the Obama administration drafts a funding request to pay for the additional 30,000 troops it plans to send to Afghanistan, military officials are weighing the types of intelligence and reconnaissance equipment they will need for the escalating operations.

But one thing is all but certain: More drones will be needed in the war zone to patrol Afghanistan's expansive and mountainous terrain.

The surge, which Defense Secretary Gates estimates will cost between $30 billion and $35 billion this fiscal year, will undoubtedly present business opportunities for both major defense firms and niche players who have intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance products -- both manned and unmanned -- they can rapidly produce and get into the field.

"There's almost no amount of ISR, in my view, that would not be valued added to my effort in Afghanistan," Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for ISR, said Wednesday that the military plans to buy more unmanned aerial vehicles for operations in Afghanistan. To achieve even faster results, improvements will be made to drones already in the inventory.

"Numbers do have a quality all their own," Deptula said. "When we cover a large amount of area, we require a significant number of platforms," he added.

But he said the right mix of ISR gear needed to support the troops has not been determined.

"It is an interesting process ... and the reason I won't tell you the specifics is because those kinds of things change on a daily basis," Deptula said.

UAVs have been tapped in increasing numbers in Afghanistan, with the military relying on a wide variety of systems ranging from Northrop Grumman Corp.'s large Global Hawk to the 4.5-pound Raven made by AeroVironment Inc., which soldiers carry in a rucksack.

With a growing menu of UAV options to chose from, it is difficult to pinpoint which aircraft would make the cut for the supplemental request for the remainder of FY10, which Congress expects to receive early next year.

Global Hawks, with a wingspan of 131 feet, have replaced the Air Force's storied U-2 spy planes, but analysts said they require too much time in production to satisfy an immediate war-fighting need.

More ideal would be systems like General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' Predator and Avenger combat UAVs, as well as AAI Corp.'s Shadow tactical aircraft used by the Army and Marine Corps, said Jim Thomas of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a nonpartisan think tank.

Phil Finnegan, an analyst at the Teal Group, said he believes there will be demand for more tactical UAVs, such as the Shadow and Boeing Co.'s ScanEagle drone.

A defense industry source said the Marines, Army and U.S. Special Operations Command are interested in buying Boeing's A-160 Hummingbird, which looks like a helicopter but can fly higher and hover for longer periods.

The Hummingbird has not been deployed, but the source said it could be ready for use as an ISR platform fast enough to make it a viable option for inclusion in a FY10 supplemental.

Meanwhile, the military continues to look for other technologies it can put into service quickly.

Deptula cited the MC-12W manned surveillance plane as a successful attempt to bypass the slow, arcane procurement process to get needed systems to the field. L3 Communications Corp. modified commercial Hawker Beechcraft turboprop aircraft and delivered nine fully equipped MC-12s within 14 months.

The military plans to buy 37 MC-12s, 24 of which will be deployed to Afghanistan. Six planes are already in Iraq, and the first one is expected in Afghanistan in two weeks, about a month ahead of schedule. The remaining MC-12Ws will be there by late summer, Deptula said.

"We continue to work with the contractor to deliver these aircraft as quickly as possible," Deptula said in an e-mail. "The very second they come off the assembly line and are matched with a trained crew, we send them downrange."