December 2, 2007:
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.