January 21, 2006:
The U.S. Air Force is upset that the U.S. Army is buying over 130 "Improved Predators" (called "Warrior"), with deliveries to begin in three years. These aircraft will cost about six million dollars each. The air force controls all the Predators currently in service (except for some the CIA operates). The air force has always been touchy about the army owning fixed wing aircraft. The army can have some, well, not many, and the air force must approve. But that rule blurred a bit when it came to UAVs. The air force would like to establish and enforce some "who can own what UAV" rules before things get out of hand. The air force thought they had a good case with the Warrior. It was basically an improved Predator. Slightly less endurance (36 hours), but about the same payload (four missiles, Hellfires of Viper-Strikes). Warrior is being built by General Atomic, who also designed and built the Predator. But the army told the air force to back off, and made their case by pointing out that the Warrior was meant to be, among other chores, a scout for Apache helicopter gunships, with one or more Warriors being controlled by Apache pilots flying nearby. Moreover, the Warriors would also carry wireless network antennae, to act as repeaters for radio traffic from troops on the ground. All this was an argument that was reasonable and compelling, so the air force had to back off. But all these UAVs are making the air force nervous. The way things are going, the air force will soon be nothing but ground crews for unmanned aircraft. Not that this is anything new. Back in the 1960s, when it became clear that the ICBM was a superior nuclear weapon delivery system, the air force generals had to grin and bear it, although they kept building manned bombers. But now, all a bomber has to do is drop a GPS guided smart bomb. A UAV can do that. In fact, one of the few things a UAV has not proved itself good at yet is operating helicopter gunships or ground attack aircraft (the A-10 and AC-130), aircraft mostly of use just to the army.
To further complicate matters, the navy has proposed that it be given control off all fighters and ground attack aircraft, with the air force keeping its heavy bombers, ICBMs and special aircraft (electronic warfare and special operations.) The air force was not interested, even though the navy has a better track record when it comes to air combat and ground support (especially the marine pilots.) Meanwhile, the army is going to give each of its divisions a squadron of twelve Warrior UAVs, with over a hundred smaller UAVs assigned to each division as well. Who needs the U.S. Air Force, when you have your own (but minus the pilots, which seems to work out so much better.)