In the Global War on Terrorism, Air Force Predators and other unmanned aerial vehicles are constantly in action. They have become principal providers of critical intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance data and have played a combat role, too. Now, Washington is in the grip of an unusually nasty and public war over who will have responsibility for medium- and high-altitude UAVs.
Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Air Force Chief of Staff, touched off the conflict on March 5 by distributing a memo to Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, the Chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the service Chiefs, and all the theater combatant commanders. (See “Editorial: A Better UAV Flight Plan,” April, p. 2.)
The memo proposed that the Air Force take over as executive agent for all UAVs designed to operate at or above 3,500 feet. If approved, the move would give USAF significant control over the development, planning, funding, and operational concepts for unmanned aircraft, defensewide.
Army Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Mundt, director of aviation for the Army’s deputy chief of staff for operations and plans, fired the opening shots in an interview with Defense Daily. “We absolutely disagree, and every other service does, too, and the Joint Staff does as well,” Mundt said.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, commander of the Air Intelligence Agency, shot back in a March 28 service commentary. Mundt “recently disparaged” the Air Force’s efforts to improve ISR and UAV capabilities, Jouas wrote. “Mundt’s caustic comments, reminiscent of an era prior to the maturation of jointness and service interdependence, would have been better aimed at reducing competing UAV programs and mission redundancies.”
“A lot of us were just flat caught off guard,” claimed Mundt.
Indeed, the Air Force two years ago had formally proposed that it be given UAV executive agency, but the Joint Staff shot down the idea at that time. (See “Washington Watch: The UAV Skirmishes,” June 2005, p. 11.)
In his controversial memo, Moseley proposed a plan to increase the interdependence of medium- and high-altitude UAVs “beginning with establishment of the Air Force as executive agent (EA) for them.” The proposal encompassed five primary ISR platforms: USAF’s MQ-1 Predator, RQ-4 Global Hawk, and MQ-9 Reaper; the Army’s MQ-1C Warrior; and the Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system. Smaller UAVs designed to operate with units and at lower altitudes were not part of the proposal.
Moseley proclaimed a need for a joint, theaterwide ISR strategy for everything flying above 3,500 feet. High on the list of benefits was a potential savings of around $1.7 billion to be gleaned from executive agency consolidation of the various programs.
Of specific interest to the Air Force is a potential merger of the closely related Air Force Predator and Army Warrior programs, and a similar consolidation of the Air Force Global Hawk and its Naval sibling, the BAMS. USAF’s plan would transfer procurement authority for all of these systems to the Air Force to save on costs, eliminate duplication, and direct investment to areas where it would be most useful.
Army objections stem from a belief that its systems need to be developed by ground force personnel (otherwise, they might not be suitable to ground force needs) and under tactical control of ground force commanders (otherwise, they might not be available at times when Army units need them).
The Air Force in recent years has been expanding its UAV capabilities. For example, it led the development of the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver, or ROVER, the popular laptop downlink system. Using this method and hardware, the Predator can push its video data down to battlefield airmen, special operators, and soldiers in the field.
“If I sound emotional about this, it’s because I believe there is a way to fight a joint and coalition fight much more effectively, much more efficiently, and afford these systems,” Moseley told a group of defense writers in April.
The institutional Air Force is, of course, not seeking to micromanage actual use of the UAVs; operational control would go to the air component commander at the combined air operations center in a combat theater, the best place to centrally coordinate and parcel out the capabilities. The air boss is usually, but not always, an Air Force officer, and he answers to the theater commander, not to service officials.
The Army immediately took the point in resisting the Air Force plan. Yet the first reactions from the Navy and Marine Corps were not warm, either. “I’ve seen the memorandum,” Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chief of Naval Operations, said March 29. He suggested further discussion, adding, “As I read it, I’m not supportive.”
His support came with a caveat: Pace said that different armed forces would need different payloads on UAVs, so “we need to be careful not to override the needs of the troops on the ground by some kind of a generic package.”
The heart of the issue is how to provide responsive ISR for a wide range of users. Here, the Air Force believes it has a compelling case for better authority.
Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, noted in May that he has a requirement for 30 Predator orbits a day in the US Central Command area and that the military is “having a hard time” reaching half that number. The UAV resources are all badly stretched.
Given this situation of scarcity, the big question comes down to this: Who will provide ISR to the Army’s tactical units? The Army says it should. The Warrior UAV, an enhanced Predator derivative, gives the Army an organic capability. Warrior could operate at altitudes up to 25,000 feet and remain airborne for as long as 36 hours. The Army wants to buy up to 132 of these extended range, multipurpose UAVs.
Thus, assigning medium-altitude UAVs such as Warrior to ground units takes those valuable platforms out of the pool for joint ISR and unmanned strike operations. “Part of the frustration now,” said Deptula, “is that not every unit on the ground gets Predator video all the time. That’s because of the rack and stack of the priorities.”
Needed: Central AllocationNext, the joint task force commanders for Afghanistan and Iraq—both currently Army general officers—set priorities for UAV tasking, then hand orders down to the joint force air component commander for execution.
Deptula said the goal is “ensuring that small units have the most responsive ISR coverage that is physically possible.” And in that respect, Army ownership would make responsive assignment harder, not easier.
Central allocation is the key. “Any particular small unit might only need the ability for a certain number of minutes [of coverage] out of every hour,” Deptula said. “But by virtue of the fact that the unit owns it, they’ll keep it occupied.”
One division might hoard its UAVs while another division had a greater need for that capability. Under JFACC control, commanders are able to better shift around the assets to meet combat needs.
Airspace management is another benefit of centralized control. The problem of collisions is growing steadily. Although most near-misses happen at low altitudes, where hordes of small UAVs are buzzing around, Wooley noted that he “loses sleep” over the prospect of “beak-to-beak” collisions between his SOF aircraft and unmanned aircraft. The mid- and high-altitude UAVs in question regularly operate in the airspace where AFSOC normally flies.
The MQ-9 Reaper is of particular interest in Korea. Gen. Paul V. Hester, commander of Pacific Air Forces, has said he would like to base some of the UAVs on that heavily armed peninsula. In some scenarios, the Predator, Reaper, and other UAVs may go into action without ground forces. There is risk in limiting access to a major share of the nation’s medium- and high-altitude UAVs by locking them into the Army force structure.
Deptula drew an analogy. “GPS [the Global Positioning System] is 100 percent owned and operated by the Air Force, yet its effect has become so ubiquitous that it’s depended upon by all the services without any concern. We can do that with medium- and high-altitude UAVs,” he testified in April.
“I know that people that wear this uniform may not agree with me,” said Cartwright, referring to other members of the Marine Corps, but Air Force executive agency, in his opinion, was “exactly right.”
Today’s UAV imbroglio has its roots in problems left unsolved during the rush to develop multiple UAV systems in the 1990s. The US military began using UAVs routinely during conflicts in the Balkans. The Air Force led breakthrough developments in combat employment. “Remember, it’s Air Force initiatives and Air Force programs that brought us the laser on the UAV, that brought us the big sensor suite on the UAV, that brought us an armed UAV, that brought us the ROVER ground station,” said Moseley.
Soon after, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council began deconflicting some service programs. The JROC directed the Army and Navy to pursue tactical needs in different ways, a move leading the Army to field the Shadow. By then, as CBO pointed out, there were budding concerns about cost and control.
Unity was not on the agenda. The Army moved swiftly to expand and develop its own unmanned systems as its appetite for UAVs grew. Ground warriors took a traditional view of the upstart platforms. The main mission for UAVs would be surveillance. Brigade or division commanders would put UAVs over their unit’s operating area and move the UAVs forward with the ground maneuver unit. Army-owned UAVs could provide intelligence, spot targets, and feed damage assessments back to headquarters.
By 2001, the Army was programming for multiple unmanned systems to support ground maneuver commanders. Experience in Afghanistan and Iraq further increased the Army’s appetite for the systems—and for ownership.
“Infantry, scout, intelligence, aviation, artillery, maneuver, and even medical units benefit from the availability of UAVs,” claimed a 2004 brief prepared by the Association of the United States Army.
Airspace ProblemsBy that summer, a total of 574 UAVs of all types and from all services were operating in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of them, however, were tactical systems belonging to the Army. (See “The Chart Page: That Giant Droning Sound,” March, p. 10.)
The Air Force’s first executive agency request was made shortly thereafter. It drew immediate fire from the other armed services, and Jumper retreated a bit. Referring to executive agency, Jumper said, “Let’s not use that [term], but let’s get everybody under the same roof and make sure [we are] organizing these things so we can get them where they are needed.”
Things rocked along for the next two years, but, by 2007, looming operational and fiscal problems made it impossible to put off a search for a permanent solution. Specifically, it was the mounting overlap between Predator and its Warrior variant—both in operations and in acquisition plans—that forced the issue.
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Daily Report: Read the day's top news about the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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