Leadership: Air Superiority Redefined


March 28, 2007: Once again, the U.S. Air Force is asking the Department of Defense for control over all UAV development. The army, marines and navy oppose this. The U.S. Air Force proposes to get things organized by taking charge of UAV development for all the services. There are a long list of objections to this. The air force is not known for the inexpensive, not with the two billion dollar (each) B-2 bomber or $250 million (each) F-22 fighter. Moreover, the air force has long dragged its heels when it came to UAVs. The pilots who run the air force were not eager to build aircraft that don't need pilots. That kind of thinking has changed as UAVs have become more effective. Besides, UAVs still have pilots, who operate from the ground or a nearby aircraft. That will change eventually as well, with UAVs having "operators" instead of pilots. But in the meantime, the air force wants to be in charge of deciding what UAVs will be, and which ones will be bought.

This air force grab at control over UAVs gets a particularly violent reaction from the army. The army was forced to agree, in the 1950s (the "Treaty of Key West"), to only have helicopters, and a few small winged aircraft. The air force had tried to get control of naval aircraft, as happened in Britain, but that didn't get very far. The U.S. Navy was an early adopter of aircraft, and has been able to maintain its own air force. The U.S. Marine Corps, because it is also part of the Navy Department, also has its own air force.

UAVs are aircraft, winged aircraft, and, technically, they should belong to the air force. But after Vietnam, the air force let the army try developing a recon UAV. That project failed, and in the 1980s, members of Congress complained that Israel was developing effective UAVs for their armed forces, and why wasn't the United States? So the army and air force (and navy, for that matter) continued to try and get something in the air that worked. This was eventually done by the late 1990s.

At the same time, the micro (under ten pound) -UAVs sort of came out of nowhere. The simple technology in these micro-UAVs can be scaled up, to a point, and provide longer range UAVs for larger army units. But at this point, the UAVs begin to impinge on traditional air force territory. This is an example of how new technologies can start in one place, and then wander over to an other area and trigger a bureaucratic war.

These problems will eventually be worked out as some standardization comes to military UAVs, But at the moment, the wartime "try anything" rules are in effect. The air force is being told to back off, if only because, "there's a war on."

Meanwhile, the other services are arguing that common standards can be agreed upon without giving the air force control of all UAV development. What the air force is afraid of, is losing a lot of turf. The more UAVs the army uses, the less they need anything from the air force. Of course, the army has been doing that for decades, as can be seen in the thousands of transport and attack helicopters the army uses. The air force has long since given up trying to get these away from the army. But the air force sees an opportunity with UAVs to "control everything that files (without a pilot, anyway)."

The other services want UAVs that do what they want done, and want to do their own development, to make sure they get what they want. This argument is bolstered by the increasing flood of new technologies. Adding another layer of bureaucracy (the air force) would only slow things down. The army is using UAVs so heavily that these tiny aircraft are becoming a standard bit of equipment in small units. Just about every infantry company has micro-UAVs issued to it. The UAVs are becoming simpler to operate, true robots. Many combine laptop based software, with onboard software that does most of the "flying."

The current air force demand recognizes the importance of the micro (under ten pound) UAVs so popular with army combat units. So the air force is asking for control of anything that flies higher than 3,500 feet. That created an uproar among army brigade and division commanders. These guys really like having their own Shadow 200 UAVs, which often fly at 10,000 feet, or higher, to avoid ground fire. Weighing 350 pounds, these aircraft give the army much better service the air force ever did. And many army officers are old enough to remember the bad old days, when a lot of air reconnaissance was done by the air force, whenever the air force got around to it. The army and marines currently have nearly a thousand UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of them are micro-UAVs, but the army would have a lot of angry brigade and division commanders if they let the air force take control of the larger UAVs.


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