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Just because the Department of Defense will cut $78 billion from its budget over the next five years doesn’t mean there isn’t still wiggle room to fund the projects that really matter–such as building the robot army of the future.

Even as many Defense Department programs shrink, more money than ever will be directed toward unmanned aerial vehicles for the Army and Air Force. Specifically, funds will be allotted to buy even more Reaper and Gray Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Reaper is the successor to the Predator drones that are already in heavy rotation in Afghanistan. The Reaper looks an awful lot like the now-iconic Predator, but it’s larger, has a much more powerful engine and can carry up to 15 times as many lethal doohickies.

The Gray Eagle, on the other hand, is designed principally for surveillance – it’s basically a Predator that the Army gets to have all to itself, for use in battlefield awareness and intelligence-gathering.

According to the International Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, “To pay for these, the DOD is consolidating some operations, reducing some of its workforce, raising healthcare premiums and cutting troubled programs such as the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.”

In a way, the DoD is simply following in the footsteps of other industries, which have been replacing workers with automation – and, increasingly, robots – for some time. The UAVs the DoD is investing in aren’t robots in the conventional sense, but they are in some ways easier to maintain (and certainly more expendable) than conventional piloted aircraft. The new Reaper is also capable of especially long flights, allowing it to be crewed in shifts.

As DoD secretary Gates told reporters last February, the demand for these UAVs is tremendous - the Pentagon has bought “as many as it can,” and they can always use more. Said Gates:

The reality is, there is huge demand all over the world for these capabilities – in the drug fight, here in this hemisphere, and a variety of places around the world. They’re useful in natural disasters. And obviously, in a combat situation like we face, they also carry armaments. So this is a capability where I think that we will continue to see significant growth for some years into the future, even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan eventually wind down. Just because the more we have used them, in a way, the more we have identified their potential in a broader and broader set of circumstances. So I think everybody who’s had anything to do with this sees this as a terrific capability.

Which bodes well for the future of defense contractors like General Atomics, which makes the Reaper and Predator drones, but not so well for any future remakes of the movie Top Gun – something tells me Tom Cruise wouldn’t look as cool piloting his jet from an office chair in a strip mall somewhere in suburbia.

Follow Mims on Twitter or contact him via email.

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