Warplanes: Fly The Wild Skies, And Look The Other Way

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August 30, 2006: Before September 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of Defense was spending less than $400 million a year on UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.) Since then, UAV spending has grown to over $4 billion this year. While most of the money is going into the larger UAVs like Global Hawk (costing $130 million each) and Predator ($20 million each), most of the UAVs in the air are smaller ones, like Raven ($25,000 each). In fact, most of the over 2,000 UAVs in Iraq are Ravens, or similar models (weighing under ten pounds.)

It's the popularity of the smaller UAVs that is creating most of the favorable buzz among the troops. But the micro-UAVs are also causing the most headaches for senior officers. The problem is that the Ravens are used mainly by infantry battalion and company commanders. These guys are at the bleeding edge of the fighting, and cannot be abused by senior officers, politicians, or the media, without serious consequences. But the aviation commanders (of all the services) are outraged at the large number of these small aircraft, and the freedom with which they are used by "non-aviation" ground commanders.

Rules have been established for micro-UAV use, but these are frequently bent or broke. Basically, Ravens are not supposed to be in the air at the same time other low flying aircraft (helicopters, A-10s and AC-130s, for the most part) are in the same area. That creates lots of problems for the ground commanders. Technically, they can't call for a medevac (helicopter to pick up wounded or deliver supplies) or let an A-10 or AC-130 come down to deliver some fire support, if there are any Ravens up in the area. But the Raven's are used intensively to give combat commanders a birds eye view of what their troops, and enemy forces, are up to. So that's a hell of a choice to have to make. Moreover, there often isn't time to get the Raven's down or out of the way when a medevac chopper is inbound.

So the commanders keep the Ravens up there, and try to keep them out of the way. The pilots know this is going on, and are not happy about it. They know the company and battalion commanders are using the Ravens as their own private air forces. But the pilots also know these captains and lieutenant colonels usually have no aviation experience, and are relying on the fact that, in most cases, a collision with a Raven will destroy the Raven and do hardly any damage to the larger aircraft. Moreover, lots of Raven's have already been lost simply because the air turbulence caused by a nearby helicopter or aircraft caused the micro-UAV to get blown out of control, which often leads to it crashing. Ravens suffer the same fate if the wind just picks up and becomes gusty and unpredictable. So the Raven operators need only a heads up about an incoming aircraft, to move their little birds out of harms way. But this is not satisfactory, at least officially, to the aviation community (of pilots and aviation generals.)

The pilots take comfort in the fact that no larger aircraft have been brought down, or seriously damaged by a run-in with a Raven. But one can say the same thing about bird strikes, which are even more frequent, and every year do bring down several military aircraft. But until a Raven does bring down a manned aircraft, the war of words, wills and looking-the-other-way will go on.

 


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