On February 9, 2016, President Obama unveiled the federal government’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget. The proposed request includes $587.2 billion in military spending, which is split between a $523.9 billion base budget and a $58.8 billion Overseas Contingency Operations fund for wartime operations. In announcing the Pentagon’s spending request, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work said that one of the main lines of effort in Fiscal Year 2017 would be to “seek game changing technologies and make more discreet technological bets that exploit our advantages as well as adversary weaknesses.” In earlier appearances, Deputy Secretary Work has touted the budget proposal as the first step towards the so-called “third-offset strategy,” a plan to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military.
Drones are an important part of this strategy. The military has allocated approximately $4.483 billion for drone-related spending in the FY17 budget proposal. On the whole, the proposal reflects a technology in transition; as major drone acquisition programs wind down, funding is allocated for new research and procurement initiatives. In fact, with the exception of the Air Force’s General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper and the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, the military plans on spending significantly less to purchase new unmanned aircraft in FY17 than in previous years. This is because most of the current major acquisition programs have already met their aircraft totals or have gone over budget. 31 Unmanned aerial systems will be purchased in FY17, a marked—though not unexpected—drop from previous years.
As a result of the gradual reduction in funding for these programs, the total amount allocated towards drones is $1.16 billion lower in the FY17 proposal than in FY16. While medium and large unmanned air systems continue to take the majority of drone spending, growing emphasis is being placed on other types of unmanned vehicles. The Navy, for example, will begin procuring new unmanned undersea vehicles for detecting sea mines, and will add tens of millions of dollars for research and development of new, larger UUVs. The Army, meanwhile, will boost funding for unmanned ground vehicles and will initiate new projects to research swarming weapons and increased autonomy. Although spending for these projects is much smaller than for a larger aircraft system like the Global Hawk or Fire Scout, they reflect what are perhaps the beginnings of a long effort by the military to maintain the technological upper hand by investing in the next generation of unmanned technologies.
This paper provides the general public with a guide to military spending on drones and robotics. Spending items are arranged by service and, when applicable, funding levels are compared to amounts in previous years. Two sections address the history of the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper and the Navy’s MQ-4C Triton, providing the reader with some perspective into Pentagon’s acquisition process for these two large programs.
This report was updated on February 29, 2016 to include spending items in the Special Operations Command, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Missile Defense Agency budget requests.