September 18, 2007:
The battle for control of military UAVs in
the United States is over, and the U.S. Air Force has lost. The USAF attempted
to gain control of UAV development for all the services. Naturally, all the
other services, especially the army and marines, violently opposed this move.
As a concession, the air force offered to leave out micro-UAVs (defining them
as any UAV that cannot operate higher than 1,000 meters, or about 3,300 feet).
That meant the troops on the ground could keep the thousand of micro (under ten
pound) UAVs they have been using lately. But the other services wanted to
retain control over the design and procurement of larger UAVs as well.
The air force is not
done, however. The USAF is still in charge of air traffic control over the
battlefield, and wants to get UAVs equipped with electronic devices that would
make it easier to avoid collisions. There are already some new systems that
attempt to do that. What the other services want to avoid is another layer of
bureaucracy they have to go through in order to get things done in combat. The
air force control systems, like the Air Tasking Order (ATO), are resented by
the other services, even though the air force has hustled to update the ATO and
make it more efficient.
The real problem is that
technology is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Smart bombs, UAVs, new
sensors and improved software have radically changed the way the air force does
business in the last decade. The air force sees UAVs as the aircraft of the
future and wants to play a leading role in how that plays out. This is the
second attempt, in the last two years, by the air force, to grab control of UAV
development. But the other services have their own air forces, and want to find
their own way. The senior leadership agreed with that, and now the air force
has to roll out their Plan B, whatever it is.