Air Force: More unmanned aircraft than manned in 2009

How important have unmanned aircraft become to the US military? Well how's this: the Air Force says next year it will acquire more unmanned aircraft than manned.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip this week said the service is "all in" when it comes to developing unmanned systems and aircraft.

"Next year, the Air Force will procure more unmanned aircraft than manned aircraft," the general said. "I think that makes a very pointed statement about our commitment to the future of [unmanned aircraft] and what it brings to the fight in meeting the requirements of combatant commanders."

Seip said the Air Force currently has 85% of its unmanned air force deployed in Southwest Asia operations and 15% stateside to train pilots and for operational test and development. The Air Force is doing all it can to speed up the UAS pilot training process, he added.

Published reports note that the Air Force wants to produce 300 unmanned aerial vehicle pilots over the next three years because they're badly needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service has 27 unmanned aircraft flying over Iraq and Afghanistan at any time, but it wants to almost double those patrols by 2012, according to the Web site.

Additionally, he said, teams at the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., are developing countermeasures for potential enemy use of unmanned aerial systems.

The use of unmanned aircraft is exploding in the military and commercial communities. Federal agencies such as the DHS, the Department of Commerce, and NASA alone use unmanned planes in many areas, such as border security, weather research, and forest fire monitoring. Researchers at the Teal Group said in their 2008 market study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV spending of $3.4 billion annually to $7.3 billion, totaling close to $55 billion in the next ten years. The forecast also indicates that the US could account for 73% of the world's research and development investment unmanned flight in the next decade.

The Government Accountability Office last year called on Congress to create an overarching body within Federal Aviation Administration to coordinate unmanned aircraft development and integration efforts.

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