Updates to the FY17 Defense Budget Request

Credit: DARPA
Credit: DARPA

By Dan Gettinger

In late February, the Pentagon released the budget justification books for Special Operations Command, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Missile Defense Agency. Combined, these three departments have allocated $503.3 million to drone procurement, research and construction projects. We have updated our publication “Drones in the Fiscal Year 2017 Defense Budget” to reflect these items. Here’s what you need to know:

Special Operations Command

For FY17, SOCOM has allocated $96.7 million for drone procurement, research and development, and construction. This is down from $131.7 million in FY16 and up from $62.7 million in FY15. The FY17 budget includes $43.7 million in procurement spending, $48.2 million for research, and $4.8 million for construction.


  • SOCOM expects to operate 50 MQ-9 Reaper drones in FY17, up from 37 in FY15. While these aircraft are purchased through the regular Air Force budget, SOCOM sets aside funds to upgrade the sensors and weapons to fit its mission requirements. Some of these payloads include improved full motion video and communications, new weapons, extended flight range capabilities, and advanced sensors. In FY17, SOCOM has allocated $10.6 million to purchase new mission kits. (Line Item 1108MQ9)
  • SOCOM plans to consolidate several procurement programs that focus on upgrading smaller drones into a single line item in FY17. The Unmanned ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) program will purchase new payloads for the RQ-11 Raven, RQ-20 Puma, and MQ-1 Predator. In all, this program will procure 90 mission kits for these aircraft, amounting to $33.1 million, including $11.9 million drawn from Overseas Contingency Operations funds. (Line Item 0201UMNISR)

Research, Development, Testing & Evaluation

  • The MQ-9 research program, allocated $17.8 million, will develop mission kits and payloads unique to Special Operations Forces. In FY16, Congress added $4 million to this program. (Program Element 1105219BB)
  • The Unmanned ISR research program, allocated $22.1 million, develops new capabilities for small reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft. Efforts will focus on improving signals and imagery intelligence and electronic warfare payloads. Several research programs have been consolidated to create this budget item, including the Special Applications for Contingencies program, which received $65.1 million in FY16. (Program Element 1160434BB)
  • The Platform Engineering Analysis program, allocated $5 million, supports research into payloads, sensors, air-ground interoperability, precision munitions, and ISR capabilities for small UAVs. (Program Element 1160402BB)


  • SOCOM has allocated $4.8 million to construct a hangar and maintenance facility for tactical unmanned aircraft at Fort Benning, Georgia. The facilities will serve a new drone platoon in the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment and the project is expected to be completed by June 2018. (Program Element 1140494BB)

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

Research, Development, Testing & Evaluation

In FY17, DARPA will allocate $301.5 million for research into drones, autonomy and robotics. This is up from $283.9 million in FY16 and $233.2 million in FY14.

  • Two projects that are new in FY17 focus on developing autonomous capabilities and artificial intelligence: Understanding Machine Intelligence, allocated $10 million, and Science of Human and Computer Teaming, allocated $15 million. Understanding Machine Intelligence is an initiative to research ways to improve transparency in artificial intelligence. Science of Human and Computer Teaming will develop systems for getting humans and machines to work together as a team. (Program Element 0602303E and 0602702E)
  • Aircrew Labor In-cockpit Automation System (ALIAS), allocated $19.9 million, is an ongoing research initiative aimed at developing software that can automate aircrew functions using autonomous systems architecture. The goal of the research project is to improve aircrew performance. (Program Element 0602702E)
  • The Communicating With Computers (CWC) project will develop systems for computers to “comprehend language, gesture, facial expression and other communicative modalities in context,” according to the program justification text. One goal in FY17 is to demonstrate how humans and machines can communicate and collaborate on “a physical problem solving task.” Funding for this program rose from $5 million in FY15 to a proposed $16.2 million in FY17. (Program Element 0601101E)
  • Two projects will explore the role that unmanned ground systems can play in teams of human soldiers. The Squad X program, initiated in FY14 and allocated $36.8 million, will study the use of unmanned systems in the air and on the ground to enhance the situational awareness of infantry units in complex urban environments. For example, in the near future, infantry squads might be deployed with an unmanned aircraft to monitor the squad from above and robots on the ground to screen the soldiers and carry their gear. The Mobile Infantry program, allocated $7 million, will study the performance of teams of humans and semi-autonomous platforms, focusing on how machines could execute some missions without the interaction of a human operator. (Program Element 0602702E)
  • The Counter Unmanned Air Systems and Force Protection program, allocated $9 million, is a new initiative that will study systems for detecting, tracking and destroying unmanned aircraft that pose a threat to military personnel. This project will also examine how non-state and state actors could use drones to gain an asymmetric advantage on the battlefield. (Program Element 0602702E)
  • Two projects are dedicated to developing prototypes for large unmanned air vehicles. The Vertical Take-Off and Landing Demonstrator, allocated $52 million, will build an experimental aircraft, combining features of a fixed-wing airplane and rotary-wing technology. The hope is to produce an aircraft that can fly relatively fast (at least 350 mph) and takeoff and land without the need for a runway. The intended customers are the Army, Marine Corps and Special Operations Forces. The Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN), a large vertical takeoff and landing drone intended for small Navy ships, is being phased out of the DARPA budget and moving to the Navy’s budget for the next stage of development. The TERN project will receive $12 million in DARPA funding in FY17. (Program Element 0603286E)
  • The Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) project, allocated $29 million, seeks to create new algorithms and software that would enable a fleet of existing drones to be controlled by, for example, a single fighter jet pilot. In FY17, DAPRA will continue to develop algorithms for collaboration between drones and human supervisors, as well as among drones themselves. For example, one goal will be to develop an algorithm that will enable unmanned systems to re-assign targets based on the loss of a friendly drone. (Program Element 0603286E)
  • The Gremlins program, allocated $36 million, will develop prototypes for small, low-cost drones that could be launched en masse from a cargo plane. The swarm of drones could carry out a reconnaissance or strike mission and eventually recovered by the host platform. These small drones could also act as a defensive line for manned aircraft by providing intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities. (Program Element 0602702E)
  • The Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, allocated $4 million, seeks to develop an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle that could aid manned ships in countering enemy submarines. The underwater vehicle could remain submerged for months at a time. In FY17, this program will transition from DARPA to the Office of Naval Research. (Program Element 0602702E)
  • The Upward Falling Payloads project, allocated $14 million, will develop a distributed network of underwater unmanned systems that can provide situational awareness and strike capabilities across a large maritime area. These payloads could be concealed on the ocean floor in contested areas and then remotely activated to carry out a mission on an unsuspecting enemy. The Hydra program, allocated $24.2 million, also seeks to overcome the challenges posed by controlling large maritime areas. The goal of this project is to develop a network of different types of undersea vehicles that could, when awakened, carry out a variety of missions and augment the capabilities of a manned ship. The Mobile Offboard Command Control and Attack program, allocated $16.3 million, will develop an unmanned undersea vehicle to detect enemy submarines. (Program Elements 03603766E and 0302702E)

Missile Defense Agency

Research, Development, Testing & Evaluation

Funding for unmanned systems by the Missile Defense Agency is divided between two large programs aimed at detecting and intercepting incoming ballistic missiles. Together, these two programs amount to $105.1 million in funding, up from $69.8 million in FY16 and $54 million in FY15.

  • The Discrimination Sensor Prototype Development program, allocated $57.4 million, studies how to use an MQ-9 Reaper to detect and track an incoming missile and hand off the information to another missile that could intercept the incoming threat. The idea is that the Reapers could be a cheaper alternative to expensive satellites. This budget allocation is more than double the amount allocated in FY16 due to the transition of the program from research phase to test phase. (Program Element 0604115C)
  • The Directed Energy Research program, allocated $47.7 million, aims to develop a laser, which could fit aboard an unmanned air vehicle like the Reaper, to intercept incoming ballistic missiles. These funds are divided between two laser development programs: the Diode Pumped Alkali Laser at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Fiber Combined Laser at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory. The goal is to develop a relatively lightweight laser that can scale up in power quickly without burning out the drone’s onboard electrical systems. (Program Element 0603178C)

[gview file=”http://dronecenter.bard.edu/files/2016/02/DroneSpendingFy17_CSD_1-2.pdf”]

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