Crew of 170 people needed to keep Predator drone airborne for 24h

A Freedom of Information request reveals that aerial drones are rife with expensive technical problems.

The aerial disasters described draw attention not only to the technical limitations of drone warfare, but to larger conceptual flaws inherent in such operations. Launched and landed by aircrews close to battlefields in places like Afghanistan, the drones are controlled during missions by pilots and sensor operators—often multiple teams over many hours—from bases in places like Nevada and North Dakota. They are sometimes also monitored by “screeners” from private security contractors at stateside bases like Hurlburt Field in Florida. (A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)

Nick Turse: The Crash and Burn Future of Robot Warfare (via Warren Ellis)


  1. That sounds like a lot of people, but I’d like to know how many more people it takes to keep two drones in the air for the same amount of time, and also how many people it would take to get equivalent surveillance coverage with manned airplanes (obviously you can’t make one pilot fly a spyplane for 24 hours straight; you probably need at least three planes and three pilots).

    1. Fixed cost versus per-unit scaling variables?

      Still, how much of the program is traditional cost-plus contracting incentives aligned to multiply needed resources at every level?

    1. On a carrier or land-based?  I’ve often been very surprised at how few pilots exist on an aircraft  carrier, whose sole mission is to carry and launch those 120 or so pilots for 90 planes. 

      With about 5,000 on board, one could conceivably say about 55 people for the 90 aircraft.  But once you add the carrier group, which is there to support the carrier, it starts to add up…

      1. Those numbers are a bit different now. A typical carrier airwing has “about” 70 aircraft. The Hornet squadrons probably have a dozen airplanes, so about twice as many pilots, plus some are two-seat and carrier a Naval Flight Officer. Figure another 50% for that. I think there are about four Hornet squadrons, so… about 124, plus the other squadrons -Hawkeyes (five per crew), Sea King helicopters (four per crew), Prowlers (four per crew, but soon to be replaced with Growlers, crew of two), so the numbers are probably closer to 250 fliers – pilots, naval flight officers and enlisted aircrew.

        Edit: I think my math was a little off with Hornet crews, but same overall concept.

        1. I was doing a quickie based on wiki while I could:  “An embarked carrier air wing consisting of up to around 90 aircraft is normally deployed on board.”

          With all respect due, I wasn’t counting Hawkeyes, Sea Kings or Prowlers because their duties are mainly there to assist the Hornets.  Yes, the Hawkeye is useful to the air group, but the group wouldn’t be there if they didn’t need fighters.  Yes, the Sea Kings are deployed during carrier ops, but again, wouldn’t be necessary without carrier ops.  Prowlers: see Hawkeyes. 

          My point was, there’s a lot of ships protecting the carrier and a lot of guys on those ships and none of them would be there if we didn’t need carrier-based flight operations.  Once you add up all those people on the various ships compared to the number of men actually flying, it’s a pretty big crew to keep a small number of guys flying.

    2. Ah, statistics, can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. Certainly can’t trust them when they’ve been distorted. The figure to keep a Predator airborne for 24 hours is almost certainly
      including maintenance man-hours, and that all works out to seven hours
      per hour of flight.

      Here’s a copy and paste list, link at the end. I haven’t checked to verify, but these sound about right, including foreign aircraft and some non-fighter aircraft for comparison. (I don’t know what DFFM is, but I’m guessing it has something to do with depot-level repairs.)

      And the list:

      Saab Draken.- 50 to 1
      Eurofighter….- 9 to 1
      F-14…………. – 24 to 1
      F-18E/F……..- 6 to 1
      F-18E/F……..- 15 to 1 (different source)
      Saab Gripen..- 10 to 1

      C-17………….- 20 to 1
      F-15A/B……..- 32.3 here thru f117 stats from (HaveBlue and the F-117A by David Aronstein)
      F-15C/D……..- 22.1
      F-16A………..- 19.2
      F-117………..- 150 (pre 1989)
      F-117………..- 45 (after improvements, post 1989)
      CH-46E……..- 19.6 in 1995
      CH-46E……..- 27.2 in 2000
      CH-53D……..- 24.8 in 1995
      CH-53D……..- 27.9 in 2000
      F-20………….- 5.6
      A-6E…………- 51.9 DMMH/FH
      F/A-18C…….- 19.1 DMMH/FH
      B-2…………..- 124

      “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

        1. Oh, I didn’t realize. Those links were part of the copy and paste, and I didn’t follow them. But I’ll know for next time.

  2. How does this number compare to regular aircraft?  Where can I find this McClatchy report you quote secondhand?  170 seems kind of high.  High estimate of 12 pilots, 24 people controlling sensors, 24 people relaying info on to people on the battlefield, 50 people covering some sort of crazy IT backend.  That leaves something like SIXTY ground crew?  Who knows, maybe this compares favorably with manned aircraft?  USAF has 300,000 active staff, so at 170 staff per aircraft, is it possible we have 1700 planes in the air at any time?
    Call me skeptical.  We liberal anti-anti-terror people want stories that make drones look evil, and would be fine with two contradictory stories.  Are drones a stupid wastes of money or are they inexpensive tools that bring down the cost of surveillance to the level at which the government can spy on all of us 24/7?

  3. The advantage to drones is that none of those 170 people are at risk of dying. Arguments about how this fact makes us more likely to use force in some situations aside, eliminating the risk of sending manned aircraft into hazardous situations means that they will continue to be extremely attractive to the military.

    Perhaps the other side can develop their own unmanned weapons systems and warfare can become an episode of battlebots and we can all watch it on thursday nights, with popcorn.

    Probably not.

    1. Perhaps the other side can develop their own unmanned weapons systems and warfare can become an episode of battlebots and we can all watch it on thursday nights, with popcorn.

      And in the meantime, we’ll continue bombing civilians and eating popcorn?

      1. I can only speak for myself, but to date I’ve never had any urge to eat popcorn and watch anyone, even “us”, kill people. War has been a scourge to humanity since long before recorded history and I doubt it will stop being so anytime soon, despite our best efforts and desires. Minimizing casualties is probably the best we can hope for until people who are dedicated to peaceful conflict resolution take power throughout the world. I think I’ll not hold my breath for that.

        1. So, uh, people don’t watch Ultimate Fighting or Boxing while eating? The Romans never sat in arenas to eat and drink while people killed each other for sport? Some people hunger for extreme situations, some are willing to pay for such things.

          1. Which, of course, would explain the first line of my comment “I can only speak for myself….”. Pay attention.

  4. For comparison: the USAF has 329,638 people and ~4000 (manned) planes (not counting Air National Guard in both cases).  I am absolutely positive that we do not keep those 4000 planes in the air 24 hours a day (and might not be able to do so at all), but supposing that those 330K people did, that would yield a ratio of about 82 people per plane, not counting any civilian personnel that help to keep the USAF running.

    It’s not clear that either of these ratios says anything useful, since we have no idea what these notional 170 people are doing, or how much time each of them is devoted to that particular plane, etc.

  5. Hmm… A Google search of the phrase “(A recent McClatchy report revealed that it takes nearly 170 people to keep a single Predator in the air for 24 hours.)” returns 7,070 hits. Something tells me this is fodder for

    Correction: A proper search returned 209 hits.

  6. The 170 figure is a red herring.  (And it’s suspicious to begin with: surely those 170 are responsible for the maintenance of a group of drones, not a single drone.)  In any case, even if it did take 170, it’s worth it even then, with manned aircraft costing tens to hundreds of millions, and pilots costing upwards of $2Mln to train.

    If you disapprove of the U.S. cavalierly, preemptively, and routinely blasting people from the sky without due process, and believe that mass assassinations on foreign soil don’t win hearts and minds, then that should be your argument.  You can’t make the argument that drones aren’t cost-effective, because they obviously are.

    tl;dr buried the lede: this is inefficient! oh yeah, and it’s wrong.

    1. It’s shameful that they didn’t include the entire military in the cost of putting a single drone into the air… and really why doesn’t the Gelpaxian Empire get included in the cost, after all they’re keeping us safe from the Shadow space demons… and honestly, the 49th vibration never gets credit for allowing us to be a materialized color.

  7. Glad to see that most of the responses take the rational view that it takes a lot of people to keep a complex piece of technology running. 

  8. wonder how much its costs for a plane ticket and a cup of coffee to actually sit down and talk with our “enemies.”  but of course, if we actually had honest, introspective dialogues with the rest of the world, millions of government cogs wouldn’t be needed, nor hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the military industrial complex…

    spare me the “we need to do this or they’ll get us…” drivel…  the US is great at creating reasons to perpetuate the machine…  WMDs anyone?

  9. That can’t be right.*

    * Assuming an average of six feet tall, a stack of 170 people could only hold one up at about 1,000 feet. Surely they need to fly higher than that.

  10. Sky Net (V) went online in 2007… now we have drones wandering the skies… I for one welcome our robot masters and would gladly find a place among their 170 slaves…

Comments are closed.