October 18, 2007:
There's a generation gap in the
U.S. Air Force, especially when it comes to UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles like
the Predator) USAF. The combat pilots, who comprise only two percent of air
force strength, dominate the leadership. While some older pilots are all for
UAVs, it's the younger pilots that see UAVs as an opportunity. To most older
pilots (colonels and generals), UAVs are a threat. But in about ten years, the
problem will solve itself, as the pro-UAV pilots move into higher command jobs.
The sad part of this is that the air force had,
literally, decades to take a leading role in UAV development, but they always
turned their noses up to these pilotless aircraft. There were many stories
about air force pilots insisting they
would never sully their reputation by flying these toy planes. It got so
bad that they had to recruit navigators
to pilot the UAVs. That's a cultural problem that comes right from the top.
The other services took the lead in UAV use, and
now insist on developing and operating their own UAVs, despite continued
efforts by the air force to gain control over all UAV development, and much of
the operations. But the air force problems are of their own making, for having
neglected what is supposed to be their core area of responsibility.
Meanwhile, the air force isn't losing control of
the air. The real low altitudes always belonged to choppers, artillery shells
and the occasional hog (A-10). Now there are also hundreds of army and marine
Raven UAVs which, at 4.2 pounds, aren't any more of a threat than geese. For
the upper altitudes, the army and navy insist on keeping possession and control
of their own unmanned recon aircraft.
The U.S. Navy will not let the air force control
all combat UAV development. The navy is developing such aircraft to operate
from carriers. The air force generals don't like this, because the navy might
create combat UAVs superior to anything the air force comes up with, thus
creating a situation where Congress could order the air force to use the navy
UAV designs. Younger air force pilots aren't too upset with that. Navy fighters
tend to be sturdier than their air force counterparts, because the navy planes
have to be able to handle the extra stresses of landing on carriers, and all
that constant exposure to sea water.
The younger pilots can see how all this is likely
to play out. It will take several decades before manned combat aircraft are
completely gone, and today's junior pilots will be retired by then. But the
pilots, and non-pilots, joining in the next decade or so will be more
enthusiastic about commanding robotic aircraft. Time will cure the leadership
problem, hopefully before a more enterprising enemy air force does it.