Unmanned Systems

Where DOD is planning to spend on unmanned systems in 2017

Unmanned systems have been a boon to military operations, from providing an unblinking eye on targets to disabling bombs. The Defense Department is continuing to invest in both old reliable and new unmanned technologies, according to its 2017 budget request. 

In the air domain, DOD is investing $2.4 billion for unamend systems according to budget documents released by the comptroller (p.9). These include the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, the MQ-9 Reaper, the RQ-4 Global Hawk, MQ-4C Triton, the RQ-7 Shadow, the RQ-20 Puma, the RQ-11 Raven and the RQ-21 Blackjack, to name a few.

DOD seeks to procure an additional 35 UAVs, the majority of which will be Reapers that are operated primarily by the Air Force and are vital to U.S. counterterrorism missions overseas, given their dual ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities.

The Air Force will be procuring an additional 24 Reapers paid for not from the department’s base budget, but rather the Overseas Contingency Operations budget – often referred to as the war budget – that was created during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a means of providing emergency funding for operations if needed. While the Air Force has requested $341 million from the base budget associated with the Reaper program, adding the procurement request from the OCO amounts to a grand total of $906.1 million for fiscal 2017. 

Additional breakdowns for other programs (some include procurement requests without asking for additional aircraft, but those could be intended for support systems or upgrades):

Gray Eagle

The Army is requesting $21.7 million for research, development, testing and evaluation, and $99.1 million for procurement, but not adding any additional aircraft, for a total of $120.8 million.


In addition to numbers provided above, the Air Force has requested $151.4 million in research, development, testing and evaluation. Special Operations Command has also requested $17.8 million for research, development, testing and evaluation and $10.6 million for procurement without asking for any new aircraft, for a total of $28.4 million.

Global Hawk

The Air Force requested $256.3 million for research, development, testing and evaluation as well as an additional $49.3 million under procurement with no additional aircraft purchases bringing the total to $305.6 million.


The Navy requested $293 million for research, development, testing and evaluation as well as an additional $464.7 for procurement, with the addition of two new aircraft, for a grand total of $757.7 million.


The Army requested $71.2 million under the base budget and $1.8 million under OCO for procurement for a total of $73 million. 


The Marines are requesting $5.5 million under base and $3.8 million under OCO for procurement for a total of $9.3 million. Additionally, Special Operations Command has asked for $21.2 million in procurement, though it is not requesting any additional aircraft.


The Navy has asked for $70 million in procurement from OCO funds for four additional aircraft while the Marines have requested $80.2 million for procurement from the base budget for four additional aircraft. 

MQ-8 Fire Scout

The Navy (p.229 and 231) is looking to procure one additional rotary wing Fire Scout requesting $72.4 million from the base budget.

MQ-1 Predator

The Air Force has not requested any funding for the famed Predator drone, as it seeks to phase it out. However, DOD’s comptroller lists continued funding from fiscal 2015 and 2016 as $4.8 million and $3.2 million respectively for procurement.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has said previously that the department will be investing $600 billion over the next five years in unmanned undersea vehicles as well.

Of note, the Navy is not procuring its UCLASS, or Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, program. It has been reported that UCLASS will neither be a strike or surveillance platform, an issue of contention for some time, but rather a mid-air refueling vehicle due to budgetary reshuffling and reprioritization. 

The Army, is looking into several R&D programs that focus on basic research in ground vehicle technologies to include power, mobility and unmanned systems, (p.29) enabling autonomous mobility and intelligent tactical behavior by future unmanned systems (p.51), “[a]dvance perception and intelligent control technologies required to achieve autonomous tactical behaviors and other objective capabilities for future unmanned vehicles,” (p.53),” [d]esign and develop collaboration and cooperation algorithms to support goal of intelligent teaming for manned-unmanned operations,” (p.63) and methods to use directed energy and radio frequency manipulation to counter the threat of UASs (p.172.), to name a few.

The Air Force has said it reactivated two Predator squadrons that were previously slated for inactivation in fiscal 2017 due to the demand of constant ISR. The force will maintain 60 daily combat air patrols of unmanned aircraft.

Additionally, the 2017 request maintains the planned divesture in the manned U-2 high-altitude spy plane. The Air Force will maintain its current fleet of U-2s until the capabilities it is investing in for the Global Hawk are equal or greater to the U-2 capabilities, currently scheduled to occur in fiscal 2019. This could be a difficult task, as officials have maintained that both aircraft are desirable and complimentary.

Given the high demand for ISR and the retention problem the Air Force has suffered with its unmanned aircraft pilots, the force has been undergoing urgent reforms to maintain and recruit operators. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James wrote in prepared congressional testimony this week that these reforms include “increased benefits for aircrew, a program to train enlisted operators to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a basing study to provide options to support flying RPAs on a schedule more conducive to steady-state operations, and other recommendations from our Culture and Process Improvement Program, a bottom-up review of issues impacting our RPA force.” Budget documents as well as comments made by the secretary during congressional testimony highlight “doubling the undergraduate RPA training budget to accommodate 384 graduates per year, up from 192 graduates per year in the [fiscal] 2016 budget.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.