Leadership: The Anti-Robot Movement

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July 16, 2007: The U.S. Air Force is having a hard time deciding what to do with UAVs. Since combat pilots run the air force, there has always been a lot of resistance, at the very top, to buy and use UAVs. It was circumstances, more than anything else, that forced the air force to accept UAVs. The CIA got their hands on some Predator UAVs, used them successfully after September 11, 2001, armed them and used the Hellfire missiles to kill terrorists. This forced the air force to be more enthusiastic about UAVs. After much pressure from critics, the air force had finally gotten the Predator (which was based on one of many successful Israeli UAVs) in the early 1990s, and used it in the Balkans. But it was the more creative CIA use of the Predator that stirred things up. The army then adopted the Raven mini-UAV. This five pound UAV, launched by throwing it into the air, quickly became a big favorite with combat units. Over a thousand were bought. Larger UAVs (the Hunter and Shadow 200) were bought for brigade and division level operations. All of a sudden, the air force was not as needed, by the ground forces, as much as it used to be.

The air force responded to all this by demanding that the Department of Defense put it in charge of developing all new UAVs, except possibly smaller ones like the Raven. The infantry community made it known that they would not, under any circumstances, let the air force mess with their little UAVs. It was a matter of life and death for the grunts, and the air force backed off. The Department of Defense also got heat from the army, marines and navy about the proposal to let the air force have the final word on developing new UAVs. At the moment, everyone is being told to play nice, with no one in overall charge of UAV development.

Meanwhile, within the air force itself, there was growing split over how to deal with UAVs. Call it a struggle between the geeks and the pilots. The geek faction wants to move ahead at full speed, and put more effort into UAVs. The pilots were more reluctant. The result is a slow and muddled effort to get UAVs into action. For example, there were many operational problems with the Predator, which led to a high attrition rate (about a third of Predators lost, mostly to operational problems, in the first decade of use.) An example of that was the wing icing problems in the Balkans, that brought down many Predators. The air force was aware of wing icing over 70 years ago, and had ways to deal with it. Yet they sent Predators into action without adequate deicing capabilities. There were many other oversights like that, indicative of an air force that wasn't really eager to see UAVs succeed. This could also be seen in who the air force selected to operate the Predator. They used existing pilots of fighters and transports, and made it a temporary assignment. Other services had much more success making it a career opportunity for NCOs. The air force slowly came around to the career angle, and better training for the operators, but the damage was already done.

Reliability issues hurt the Predator where it was most vulnerable, in its ability to stay in the air for a long time. Although the Predator was, in theory, able to stay in the air for over 30 hours, reliability issues generally limited air time to about half that. This also made inflight refueling moot. The geeks wanted to move forward on improving reliability, and introducing inflight refueling, especially for the larger Predator B (or "Reaper"). But the pilot faction was not eager to see the Reaper succeed, because this UAV was built to replace fighter bombers. Normally, a Reaper carried two 500 pound JDAMS and two Hellfire missiles. If reliable enough, and with inflight refueling, a Reaper could stay up for several days. But with all the delays in dealing with reliability issues, it will be years before inflight refueling is worth the effort.

And then there's weapons support. The Reaper needs a special rack to carry the new 250 pound SDB (Small Diameter Bomb). Right now this will be available in about four years. The air force throws up a lot of smoke in defense of this delay, but the geeks know the real reason why.

The reliability issue works for the pilots faction, because the higher loss rate of UAVs makes them look less effective, on paper, compared to manned fighter-bombers. Thus pushing the purchase of new, and three times as expensive (with better sensors and all that) Reapers, will make manned aircraft look good, if enough of those Reapers have accidents.

Currently, army and marine UAVs operate for many more hours over the battlefield than do air force Predators and Reapers. On average, about a dozen Predator sorties a day are flown in Iraq and Afghanistan. The army flies many more than that with its Hunters, Shadows and Ravens. But noting that only Predator can carry large missiles like Hellfire, the air force is doubling the number of armed Predator sorties, and hustling to get the Reaper into action. The number of UAV crews is being increased from 120 to 160. But the army doesn't want more aircraft with weapons up there, it just wants more eyes in the sky. It's information about what the enemy is doing that saves lives on the ground, not armed UAVs.

In the long run, the geeks will win. Other nations, with less money and less influential air force generals who were once pilots, will build more effective and reliable UAVs. At that point, the U.S. will have to listen to the air force geeks, and get more serious about UAVs.

 


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