Leadership: The Day of Reckoning

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October 27, 2007: With the U.S. Army version of the Predator (MC-1C Sky Warrior) approaching the end of its development, and about to enter mass production, there are now thee similar looking, but quite different, versions of the Predator out there. The original MQ-1 Predator is the most numerous model, for the moment. This is a one ton UAV that can carry 300 pounds of weapons (usually two Hellfire missiles). Top altitude is 25,000 feet, and sorties are typically about ten hours long. The U.S. Air Force has recently introduced a new version of the Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper. This is a larger (five tons) version of the Predator, and has the same endurance as the MQ-1, but higher altitude (50,000 feet) and greater weapons load (over a ton). In particular, Reaper can carry 500 pound smart bombs. Reaper is considered a combat aircraft, and if you need something up there that can see what's happening on the ground, and is carrying some smart bombs, Reaper can replace an F-16 doing the same job. That's what the air force has in mind.

The army MC-1C is fifty percent heavier than the MQ-1, and carries 500 pounds of weapons. That's usually four Hellfires, but can also include the 44 pound Viper Strike smart bomb, or 25 pound laser guided 70mm rockets. The MC-1C also carries about 25 percent more weight of sensors and commo gear. It's ceiling is 29,000 feet, and it uses heavy truck fuel, not the jet fuel used by the other two air force Predators.

The air force does not want the army to have the MC-1C, because the air force believes it should control all fixed wing aircraft over the battlefield. But the fifty year old "Key West Agreement" (that settled arguments over who could fly what) did not mention UAVs. So now, partly because there's a war on and the army is doing most of the fighting, the army is pushing for an amendment to the Key West deal. The army wants dominion over its own fleet of fixed wing UAVs. To the air force, this is anathema. The air force knows that UAVs will soon (within the next decade) appear as combat aircraft, performing air superiority, as well as recon and ground support duties. The air force does not want the army to have its own robot air force.

But the army already does have a robot air force. In the last twelve months, the army flew more than twice as many hours (over 200,000) with its Hunter, Shadow and Raven UAVs, than the air force did with its Predators. When the MC-1C enters service in a year or so, the army will be flying even more UAV hours than the air force. Moreover, the army has replaced a lot of F-16 smart bomb missions with its "smart missiles" (GMLRS) and "smart shells" (the 155mm Excalibur). The army is now arming its RQ-5 Hunter UAVs with Viper Strike smart bombs. As far as the army is concerned, this is no different than the weapons mounted on its thousands of helicopters. The army sees the air force interpretation of the Key West Agreement as a threat to the safety of its troops in combat.

The army still needs the air force, but not as much as before, and the air force doesn't like that at all. That change is translated into billions of budget dollars. Now the army wants that money to itself, and is on the way to getting it. In response, the air force continues to lobby the Department of Defense leadership for authority to control all UAV development. To that end, it offered to merge its program for a new version of the Predator (the MQ-1C) with the very similar army MC-1C (both made by the same developer). Everyone knows the air force is on its best behavior with this project, eager to show that it can run a joint project and do right by the army. But there is also a half century of army experience with the Key West Agreement, and a long list of situations where the army got screwed. The past is catching up with the air force, and the army is determined to have its day of reckoning.

 


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