General Atomics' Predator. Photo: General Atomics.

Over the past 14 years, the United States has invested billions of dollars in unmanned aerial vehicles -- "drones" in the popular parlance. Some of these drones are armed with rockets, but most are not. Some are as large as a full-sized airplane, like General Atomics' Predator or Northrop Grumman's (NYSE:NOC) Global Hawk. But most are small, unarmed drones like the ubiquitous AeroVironment (NASDAQ:AVAV) Raven surveillance UAV.

No matter their differences, all of these drones play right into former U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen's assertion that the days of piloted combat aircraft are coming to an end, and the future belongs to the drones. But according to at least one U.S. Air Force general, Mullen is dead wrong.

"A love affair" with drones
Speaking at an Air Force Association forum in Washington, D.C., this week, outgoing Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Hostage blasted America's obsession with drones as unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

"There's a love affair out there in the aviation world with the concept of unmanned [aerial vehicles], but I really need a human tightly in the loop," Hostage argued.

As the general explained it, drones may be all well and good in an environment like Afghanistan, where opposing forces lack an air force or even air defenses more sophisticated than AK-47s and RPGs. But in any "contested environment" in which America is asked to do battle against a modern foe, Hostage argued forcefully for the need to field fighter jets, electronic warfare aircraft, and top-notch surveillance aircraft -- all with pilots in the cockpits.

Drones, which can be jammed by opposing electronic warfare specialists or shot down by more powerful fighter aircraft, won't do the trick, Hostage said. And to make sure there was no misunderstanding, he spelled it out: "The kind of platform that [the U.S. needs] is not an MQ-X, it's not a Predator, not a Reaper."

Sorry, Reaper, the general's just not that into you. Photo: General Atomics.

Uncle Sam wants U-2! (Sometimes)
"MQ" (weaponized) drones aside, Hostage appeared particularly upset about Northrop Grumman's RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones, which the Air Force has chosen to replace its fleet of Cold War-era, piloted U-2 spy planes. Originally planned to be phased out beginning in 2015, the Air Force has recently pushed the U-2's retirement date out to 2016. Why?

Beginning in 2016, and stretching over the succeeding 10 years, USAF plans to spend $1.9 billion upgrading about 32 Global Hawks currently in inventory, or expected to be delivered soon, and buying new ones from Northrop. In the end, the Air Force thinks the drone will be cheaper to operate than the U-2s. Even so, Hostage isn't exactly thrilled with the savings. Explaining his acquiescence on the decision to phase out the U-2: "I'm sacrificing the U-2 to pay for something I'm told I have to buy. Perfect world, I would have the U-2, develop the Global Hawk until it's capable of replacing the U-2, [and only] then I would put it in the boneyard."

That's hardly a ringing endorsement of the Northrop drone.

The more things change...
Does this mean there's still hope the U-2 can be saved? Hostage said the Air Force simply doesn't have the money to both expand the Global Hawk fleet and keep its U-2s flying simultaneously (although he said the U-2 fleet is in good enough shape to continue flying for another 40 years if the money can be found).

The one hope that the U-2 might be saved, and that manufacturer Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) might continue reaping revenue for maintaining and servicing the plane, is this: Mullen, who seemed to favor the shift from piloted combat aircraft to drones, is now retired Admiral Mullen.

Likewise, Hostage will soon be in retirement. With each change of command, another chance arises for a new perspective on unmanned versus piloted aircraft in the Air Force mix. If the U-2 really does have 40 years of flying time left in it, the plane just might outlast all these admirals and generals yet.

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Will Lockheed's venerable Dragon Lady still be flying in 2054? Time will tell. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.