The U.S. military’s “pivot” to the Asian Pacific region could not only further stress its unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) resources, but it could also affect what types of drones it uses.
To date, the military services have demonstrated a preference for medium-altitude, rather than high-altitude, land-based unmanned aircraft due to their combined surveillance and strike capabilities. But that could present complications as the Pentagon shifts its focus to the Asian Pacific.
According to recent figures, the military will purchase 29 new MQ-9 Reaper drones, which belong to the Air Force, along with an Army variant called the MQ-1C Gray Eagle. The Reaper, which has become a favored tool of the military and CIA given its dual ISR/strike capability, is considered a medium-altitude, long endurance, or MALE, aircraft. Aircraft that fall into this class have a general altitude ceiling of between 25,000 and 50,000 feet and are capable of 24-hour missions.
High-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) aircraft by contrast are typically capable of flying as high as 60,000 feet and can endure missions as long as 32 hours. But they are not weaponized. The two primary HALE aircrafts the military currently operate are the Air Force’s land-based RQ-4 Global Hawk and the Navy’s MQ-4 Triton, the maritime variant of the Global Hawk.