Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said recently that funding for unmanned systems will be unchanged and in some cases increased, even as the Pentagon braces for some of its sharpest reductions in spending since the end of the Cold War.

Protecting unmanned systems is critical for building a military for the next century and moving beyond the force structure of the 1990s and of the last decade, which was largely determined by fighting two ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Panetta said.

Panetta spoke as he and President Barack Obama unveiled a broad new strategy for reshaping the military and identifying global priorities in a reduced budget environment. Like unmanned systems, special operation forces, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR), and cyberspace capabilities will be protected or also see hikes in spending, the defense secretary said.

“These investments will help the military retain and continue to refine and institutionalize the expertise and capabilities that have been gained at such great cost over the last decade,” Panetta said.

The Pentagon expects to roll out its fiscal 2013 budget proposal later this month.

Defense officials have long made clear that unmanned systems will play a crucial role in the future and can come at a lower cost than their manned counterparts. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have played a significant role in identifying potential threats in Afghanistan and Iraq, while armed versions such as Predator and Reaper have been instrumental in taking out al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) welcomed Panetta’s pledge of continued support for UASs.

“In light of the budget cuts the Department of Defense must make, we are heartened to see that Secretary of Defense Panetta will continue to invest in utilizing unmanned systems to protect and work with troops in theater,” the association’s president and CEO, Michael Toscano, said.

Retired admiral and former Chief of Naval Operations, Gary Roughead, identified UAVs as having a critical role in the future of the Navy under constrained budgets during a speech last summer.

“Warfighting and fiscal realities I believe are going to drive us more rapidly and in a much more focused way beyond our traditional platforms to the inclusion of unmanned systems,” Roughead said in August, weeks before he retired.

He touted the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS) aircraft and the MQ-8 Fire Scout helicopter. BAMS is a variant of the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk.