U.S. Defense officials outlined plans to double production of unmanned aircraft, part of an expanded 2011 budget unveiled Monday. The budget will grow 7.1% to $708 billion in 2011.
The Pentagon is one of the few U.S. agencies, mostly dealing with national security, that were cleared to receive budget increases under a spending freeze ordered by President Obama.
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 drone, 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.
Besides their use in international hot spots, Gates said, drones 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.”