Despite the boom in remotely piloted aircraft operations, domestic operations for the Air Force’s fleet of MQ-1 Predators, MQ-9 Reapers, and RQ-4 Global Hawks remains highly restricted, according to the Air Force’s lead official on RPA airspace efforts. Today, the Department of Defense uses “certificates of authorization” to fly RPAs domestically, but Pentagon officials are working to build a highway for RPA civil operations in the national airspace by demonstrating concepts, experimentation, and developing new tools, said Steven Pennington, the head of the Defense Policy Board on Federal Aviation and USAF’s director of bases, ranges, and airspace issues on the Air Staff. The short term plan is to transition from restricted operations in segregated airspace, to what’s called “routine access”—flying in and out of the national airspace, and using ground based sense and avoid technology. Long term, the department wants to expand the use of air-based sense and avoid tools on RPAs, in addition to air traffic control, and sensors. But first, many of these concepts must be tested in regular airspace to see if they work, he added, which is why Federal Aviation Administration funding for these initiatives is so critical.
The Air Force overall reduced its size by 120 aircraft in fiscal year 2021, but kept about the same number of fighter, bomber and attack aircraft, according to data supplied by the service. The F-35 fleet saw the biggest increase while the B-1B bomber fleet saw the largest decline.