Aug. 7, 2008 (Reuters) — The U.S. Defense Department plans to spend $2.2 billion on a new fleet of spy planes and unmanned drones for Iraq and Afghanistan that would greatly enhance the ability of U.S. forces to track militants, officials said on Thursday.
The expansion of what military officials call "intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance," or ISR, efforts is part of a push by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to use military force with more precision in the two counterinsurgency campaigns.
Gates believes military operations should be subordinated to economic, political and social-development programs in countries battling Islamist militants.
The plan, which includes 51 C-12 twin-turboprop Huron aircraft equipped with sensors and video cameras, will let U.S. commanders better follow the movements of militant groups and take action against them, a senior defense official said.
The C-12 aircraft was built for years by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co, but the company sold its aircraft unit last year to a private equity group including Goldman Sachs and Onyx.
U.S. forces would also be able to consistently monitor larger swaths of territory, potentially vital for commanders in places like eastern Afghanistan, where militant crossings from Pakistan pose a growing insurgency threat, officials said.
The planned intelligence and surveillance expansion comes as the Bush administration considers the withdrawal of more U.S. troops from Iraq and a buildup of forces in Afghanistan.
The United States currently has about 144,000 troops in Iraq and 34,000 in Afghanistan.
AIR SURVEILLANCE INCREASED
Gates, a former CIA director who took over as defense chief from Donald Rumsfeld in late 2006, has already increased continuous air surveillance patrols in the two war zones. The senior defense official said 30 patrols are due to be operating by October, up from 12 when Gates arrived at the Pentagon.
Now the Pentagon has hundreds of millions of dollars more to pour into the effort.
Congress has approved Gates' request to boost the ISR expansion by $1.2 billion, using money from elsewhere in the defense budget, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters.
The money will go for ISR operations within the Pentagon's command responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Pentagon plans to seek about $1 billion more in the defense budget for the 2009 fiscal year, which begins October 1, officials said.
This year's money will also increase the use of unmanned surveillance drones, including the Predators said to be used by the CIA for missile attacks against al Qaeda in Pakistan.
"We'll deploy them to where they're most needed," Whitman said when asked how the new resources and equipment would be divided between Iraq and Afghanistan.
Andrew Broom, spokesman for Hawker Beechcraft Corp, the new company created after the sale of the Raytheon unit, declined comment on the value of any future military orders.
Hawker Beechcraft announced the sale of six C-12 aircraft to the Marine Corps in July for $48 million, or $8 million each, including additional equipment. At that price, an order of 51 aircraft would be worth around $400 million to the firm, which is not publicly traded but has issued public bonds.