A record number of Air Force drones crashed in major accidents last year, documents show, straining the U.S. military’s fleet of robotic aircraft when it is in more demand than ever for counterterrorism missions in an expanding array of war zones.
Driving the increase was a mysterious surge in mishaps involving the Air Force’s newest and most advanced “hunter-killer” drone, the Reaper, which has become the Pentagon’s favored weapon for conducting surveillance and airstrikes against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other militant groups.
The Reaper has been bedeviled by a rash of sudden electrical failures that have caused the 21/2-ton drone to lose power and drop from the sky, according to accident-investigation documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. Investigators have traced the problem to a faulty starter-generator, but have been unable to pinpoint why it goes haywire or devise a permanent fix.
All told, 20 large Air Force drones were destroyed or sustained at least $2 million in damage in accidents last year, the worst annual toll ever, according to a Washington Post investigation. The Pentagon has shrouded the extent of the problem and kept details of most of the crashes a secret.
The aircraft losses pose another challenge for the Air Force as it struggles to provide sufficient drone coverage for counterterrorism operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Mali and Cameroon, among other countries.
Despite a surge in requests from field commanders, the Air Force last year had to curtail its drone combat missions by 8 percent because of an acute shortage of pilots for the remote-controlled aircraft. Things have gotten so bad that the Air Force is offering retention bonuses of up to $125,000 to its drone pilots, who have long complained of overwork.
The Air Force also has contracted out more drone missions to private companies to meet what one general called “a virtually insatiable appetite” from military commanders for airborne surveillance.
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