American infantry are beginning to fear that the U.S. Air Force will take away their UAVs. And therein lies a very curious conflict within the U.S. armed forces.
After half a century of losing out to the U.S. Air Force in the competition for budget dollars, the American Army is making a major comeback. Ironically, its all about technology. The air force has always touted its mastery of high tech as a reason to get more money than the army. But the cheap and abundant technology has created new devices, namely smart bombs, UAVs and smart binoculars, that are putting a lot of airmen out of business.
Lets start with the smart bombs. For nearly a century, if a soldier wanted a bomb delivered accurately, he had to call on a highly skilled fighter-bomber pilot to fly low and put that bomb on the target. Smart bombs changed all that, especially the GPS guided bombs (JDAM). Now all the guy on the ground has to do is use a pair of smart binoculars to; A-see the target in the binoculars, and B-press a button to activate the laser rangefinder to get the range, and C-also calculate the GPS coordinates (the binoculars also carry GPS). A cable runs from the smart binoculars to a radio, which, at the D-press of another button, sends those coordinates to an air force bomber 2-4 miles overhead. The coordinates are fed into a smart bomb, and E-the pilot pushes a button to release the bomb, and a few minutes later, the bomb lands on those coordinates. This procedure is putting a lot of air force pilots out of a job. Thats because this smart bomb approach doesnt require a lot of highly trained fighter-bomber pilots. One heavy bomber (like a 40 year old B-52) overhead can carry several dozen smart bombs. All the pilot has to do is circle the battlefield and push the bomb release button when the G.I.s send up another request.
It gets worse. Traditionally, the guys on the ground, talking to the pilots overhead, where themselves pilots, spending a few years serving as a Forward Air Controller (FAC). The theory behind this was that, it takes a pilot to know what a pilot can hit. Made sense when pilots had to come down low and fast to drop a bomb on a target he might only glimpse for a few seconds. Thats not done any more. Its too damn hard, exposes the fighter-bomber to ground fire, and often puts the bomb on friendly troops. The smart bombs are a lot more reliable and accurate. The ground troops like that. Much less friendly fire from above. And the smart binoculars do most of the hard work. The army wants to take advantage of this by using more FACs, and wants to train army officers and NCOs to do this sort of thing. The air force refuses. A lot of bogus reasons are given. Such as; only pilots can do this right. That FACs must have a Top Secret clearance (knowing that all ground combat officers and and a few NCOs only have a lower Secret clearance). The air force considers the army proposal to use computer simulations to train FACs as simply unacceptable. The real reason is that army FACs means the air force could lose over 5,000 FAC jobs (many of them fighter pilots) and over a billion dollars from their budget. Also unpalatable is the idea of some army sergeant sending orders to an air force pilot to push a button. But the army knows that they cannot make the most of the new smart bomb, and smart binoculars technology unless they have more FACs.
It gets still worse. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have finally come of age because of several new technological trends coming together. For example, cameras have gotten smaller, digital and more powerful. Model aircraft technology, long a commercial hobby kind of thing, has developed some very reliable and sturdy little aircraft designs. Computer networking has made huge advances, with wireless transmission of large volumes of data (like live video feeds from an overhead UAV, to a combat officers laptop below) easy and reliable. All of a sudden, every infantry company commander has his own little air force of mini-UAVs. Battalion, brigade and division all have UAVs as well. Larger and longer ranged ones, of course, but equally cheap, reliable and totally under the control of their army users. No need for the air force to run as many expensive aerial reconnaissance missions any more. This one really hurts, as the military first used aircraft for reconnaissance.
But over the years, the air force never really got the knack of customer service. The air recon photos too often didnt get to the army commanders in time. The army, with their UAVs, doesnt care any more. But the air force is getting nervous about another budget cut to remove unneeded aerial reconnaissance aircraft.
And just to add insult to injury, the army is arming some of its larger UAVs with Hellfire (and other) missiles. This has got the air force thinking about trying to invoke The Key West Treaty (a 1950s agreement by the army not to fly anything with wings, if the air force would supply all the air support the army needed.) The air force is reluctant to try that, as all those infantry officers would not let go of their UAVs without a big fight. And at the moment, those army combat officers are the heroes.
So where does this leave the air force? In trouble, but not without a plan to turn it all around. The air force now proposes to take control of all UAV development. This means that the army and marines will pay a lot more, and wait a lot longer, to get UAVs that dont do the job as well as the ones they are currently scrounging up on their own. A major bureaucratic fight is underway. Its not much reported on, but its a matter of life and death for army combat troops. At the moment, it's even odds as to which side will win.