After touring a brand new drone pilot training facility at Naval Air Station Jacksonville on Monday, Sen. Bill Nelson said he was very impressed.
He also announced that NAS Jacksonville will be the home to a command center for the entire country for Navy pilots operating unmanned drones.
The U.S. military has increasingly used these unmanned aircraft for surveillance, and even for lethal strikes. Many politicians are cautious, saying it has to be done carefully and that they have to be 100 percent sure they've got the right person.
The Navy will be flying unmanned helicopter-like surveillance drones, called the fire scout. They want to begin using armed fire scouts by next year.
The 8,938-square-foot space at NAS Jacksonville will be one of two centers for drone pilot training -- the other is in Washington state. Nelson said they will also pilot drones flights over the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific and Indian oceans and the Persian Gulf region from the operations center in Jacksonville.
"These drones will be operated from ships," Nelson said. "Instead of launching drones from airbase, particularly in a war theater, we can bring the ships in and it won't be a long transit time for the drone."
Nelson, who has flown aboard the space shuttle, said the days of stick-and-rudder piloting are coming to an end, and drones are a big part of the future of military aviation.
While Nelson addressed military budget cuts through the looming sequestration or more gradual reductions over the next decade, the drone program will continue to grow. The $1 million to $2 million cost of each drone is far less than manned aircraft and they will be used increasingly for everything from surveillance to search-and-rescue.
"What we will see is search and rescue instead of piloted aircraft," Nelson added. "We'll see them launched off ships to help find somebody."
While the funding for the operations center is not expected until after the budget issues are solved, Nelson said the facility will add 120 pilots and 120 enlisted personnel to the Jacksonville base.
"That's all the more jobs and support activities -- all the training instructors and positions that actually make these things fly," Nelson said.
"This is huge, and I think the Navy has taken a leadership role in this and the Navy and NAS Jacksonville have made this a priority," said Ret. Admiral Victor Guillory, director of military affairs.
Guillory said the projected economic impact to Jacksonville is great. When the command center is built, it will have a multiplying effect on the local economy.
"I've seen estimates with the officers and maintainers coming in, roughly 120 of them each," he said. "Conservatively, we estimate $12 million annually from the officers, and the maintainers to the economy, another $12 million annually, and that's just direct payrolls of new Navy personnel assigned at NAS Jacksonville."
Ethical concerns of drones
There's is a growing debate over the use of unmanned drones. Some senators are challenging CIA head nominee John Brennan about the legality of targeting strikes against U.S. citizens linked to Al Qaeda.
But Brennan said any actions they take will be legal and they'll do everything else possible before resorting to lethal force. People who support drone use say it's a good alternative to putting troops in danger.
"Because they don't have to put a live person into the area of harm, they can do it with mechanical thing," Army veteran Gary Belson said. "It's relatively recent, but their ability to do it now has been enhanced because of our technological capabilities that have been improved."
"You can far more easily limit collateral damage with a drone than you can with a bomb," former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "Even a precision guided munition off an airplane."
There's also growing debate over the use of unmanned drones by law enforcement. A bill filed for this year's Florida legislative session would restrict use of drones for surveillance to anti-terrorist activities and for “exigent circumstances” like hostage situations or missing children, or with a search warrant.
Nelson said police will not be trained to pilot drones at NAS Jacksonville.