December 25, 2009: The U.S. Air Force is pushing the idea that manned reconnaissance aircraft, like its new MC-12, are preferred, by ground troops, to UAVs. The pitch is that troops feel more comfortable if the recon aircraft overhead has some people in it. This is odd, since troops on the ground often have no idea where the people they talk to, via radio, are, and don't much care as long as they get the help they need.
The real problem is that there not enough people on the ground who know how to talk to an aircraft overhead and get a smart bomb on target, or some video of the surrounding area (in the case of the MC-12). The U.S. Air Force cannot provide enough JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) for this, but is not making a big stink over how the U.S. Army is coping with the shortage of JTACS. The army has developed a JFO (Joint Fires Officer) concept to deal with the shortage. The JFOs can call in artillery (both army and naval gunfire) as well as army helicopters gunships, and select targets for the bombers (which would be passed to air force controllers to get bomber overhead to do the deed). The army has several thousand JFOs, so each infantry or tank platoon can have their own. The air force agrees with the army that, in a combat zone, every platoon, or eve squad in some cases, should have someone equipped and qualified to call in bombs and missiles.
There will never be enough of the specially trained and equipped joint terminal air controllers (JTAC) to do the job. These guys, who are usually themselves air force, army or marine pilots, have to be looking at the target before a smart bomb can be dropped. These rules have been largely watered down over the last seven years. Wartime demands often do that. But many in the air force point out that JTACs not only get more training than JFOs (five weeks, versus two), but are also combat pilots, giving them much useful practical experience. But the army and marines are taking advantage of the simplicity of smart bombs, and the sheer necessity of getting air support when it is needed, no matter the risks.
Meanwhile, the air force is having no trouble getting volunteers for JTAC duty. In the past, pilots avoided a tour as a JTAC. But now there's a war on, and most JTACs can expect to see some action. Most pilots aren't picky in that respect, fighting on the ground or in the air is all the same as long as it's real. The air force sees a long term benefit in this. Over the next two decades, some of the JTACs will become generals, and when they have to work with their army counterparts, they will have an easier time of it because they have participated in ground combat.
Meanwhile, the MC-12 is basically an interim solution to the shortage of UAVs. The MC-12 will provide the same service as a UAV (full motion video) in addition to electronic monitoring (radio, cell phone, etc.). The air force is converting some King Air 350s, and then using new ones, to obtain 37 MC-12s for this duty as, in effect, a Predator UAV replacement. The UAVs cannot be manufactured fast enough to supply battlefield needs, so the manned MC-12s will help fill the gap.
In Afghanistan, the UAVs like Predator have proved to be a critical weapon in fighting the Taliban. These aircraft can cover a lot of ground, and stay with any group of armed men they spot. This is crucial, as it makes it possible for bombers and/or ground troops to intercept. Naturally, a few smart bombs can neutralize a Taliban group (often 50-100 armed men in pickup trucks, or even moving cross country on foot.) But you want the ground troops to show up to pick over the bodies for IDs and documents. That kind of intelligence is very valuable in keeping track of who is involved.