The U.S. military has sent so many of its 6,500 UAVs to the Middle East that other operating theaters are going without, said U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Glenn Walters, deputy director for resources and acquisition for the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
Walters said that U.S. Pacific Command, Southern Command and Africa Command have requested more UAVs, but are being forced to wait until demand is met in the Central Command.
Drones are used from Yemen to Pakistan, but most of the demand is related to the surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, he said April 28 at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference in northern Virginia.
It will likely be a year before U.S. planners have a better handle on how many UAVs will be needed there and how many can be spared for use outside of the Middle East, he said.
Eventually, those other regional commands will have to learn the ins and outs of employing UAVs, perhaps bringing in units that have practical experience with them, Walters said. He said Southern Command, which operates in Latin America, has a serious need for the aircraft but has very limited practical experience with them, while the situation is slightly better in Pacific Command.
Walters said the military, whose UAV fleet has grown from about 200 in 2001, needs to figure out what to do with them as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
By 2012, he said, "We'll have 8,000 UAVs that will have to fit into" the DoD's global maintenance and basing structure.
In the United States, he said, the Army and Federal Aviation Administration are trying to figure out how to allow the pilotless aircraft to operate in civil airspace. Many of the UAVs will be based far away from the slivers of airspace where they are currently allowed to fly.
Walters said the two groups agree that UAVs need reliable onboard systems to sense and avoid nearby aircraft and to automatically return home if they lose connection to ground control stations.