Warplanes: The Return Of The U.S. Army Air Force


December 2, 2007: The U.S. Army loves the Predator UAV. But that aircraft is controlled by the air force. That results in the army getting one for a mission, less than half the time it requests one. In response, the army is building its own forces of Predators. General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator UAV, is developing the new Sky Warrior UAV, which won't enter service for another four years. The army now wants 45 squadrons (each with 12 UAVs), at a cost of about $8 million each (including ground equipment). The Sky Warrior weighs 1.5 tons, carries 300 pounds of sensors internally, and up to 500 pounds of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Sky Warrior has a wingspan 56 feet and is 28 feet long. The Sky Warrior is very similar in weight, size and capability to the Predator. Basically, it's "Predator Lite", and that's why the air force is nervous.

The air force and army use their UAVs differently. For the army, the UAV is a tool for the local combat commander. That's why each combat division will get a Sky Warrior squadron. Combat brigades will also get detachments (of two to four UAVs) as needed (even though the brigades always have several smaller UAVs assigned.) The air force uses Predator and Warrior class UAVs more as strategic recon aircraft. The teams that actually fly the larger UAVs, and operate the sensors, do so from a base in the United States (via a satellite link). When air force UAVs go overseas, only their handling and maintenance crews accompany them. The army sends everyone over. The army and air force also have different tastes in sensors carried in the UAVs. But in practical terms, the air force has been using Predators more by army rules recently.

The air force and army have agreed to cooperate on supporting Predator and Sky Warrior UAVs, which will save money for both services. But the air force is alarmed at some of the army ideas for operating Sky Warrior. For example, the army wants to rely more on the software, than trained pilots, for flying the UAVs. In fact, the army will not use pilots at all as operators. This appalls the air force, which is scrambling to turn fighter and transport pilots into Predator operators. The air force does use non-pilots for micro-UAVs (similar to the army's five pound Raven), which are used to guard air force bases. But for larger UAVs, the air force is concerned about collisions, with other UAVs or manned aircraft. The army believes the future holds technological solutions for this problem. Besides, the army can't spare pilots to man its planned force of over 500 Sky Warriors.

The size of the army UAV force also scares the air force. The Sky Warrior will be carrying Hellfire missiles and Viper Strike smart bombs. The army has also been discussing developing its own version of "JDAM Lite." This would be a hundred pound GPS guided smart bomb, which would have about fifty pounds of explosives. That's about the same bang as the new air force SDB (the 250 pound "Small Diameter Bomb"), which also has a steel penetrator. The Hellfire carries about ten pounds of explosives, and Viper Strike two pounds. The GPS guided 155mm Excalibur artillery shell has about 20 pounds of explosives, and the 227mm GPS guided MLRS rocket, with 150 pounds of explosives. "JDAM Lite" would fit into this arsenal nicely. The air force sees all these army "smart weapons" as replacing the need for air force close air support. That's what the army is thinking, as they want to control their own "death from above," and not be forced to ask the air force (which often turns them down.) The U.S. Army lost control of bombers, after many squabbles with the air force, in the 1960s. Only armed helicopters were left. But now the army is buying over 500 bombers, and the air force doesn't like, and hasn't been able to stop it, yet.


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