Leadership: Pilots Killing Soldiers With Red Tape

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July 12, 2006: The U.S. Army and Air Force continue to be locked in a fierce battle over who controls the air space above the battlefield. It comes down to this; the air force insists that army UAVs have to play by manned aircraft rules. That means filing a flight plan with the air force, 24-72 hours in advance. The air force is insistent on this because all army UAVs lack transponders, so it is difficult for manned aircraft, or air force air controllers, to spot UAVs, and avoid collisions. From the air force point of view, this all works. Army helicopters and air force combat aircraft can get to where they are needed quickly and safely.
But the ground combat officers see it differently, and that's why this is turning into a brawl. For the guys on the ground, the UAVs have become a matter of life and death, and they rarely know 24 hours in advance that they will need them. In some cases, commanders have been sending the UAVs up without the correct paperwork, and risking court-martial in the process. To the soldiers, the UAV is less of an obstacle to other aircraft than artillery and stray bullets. The air force (and army helicopters) have long since learned how to coexist with shells and bullets. So why not use the same rules for UAVs. The air force is adamant that the UAVs have to eventually get transponders (which may take a while for under ten pound UAVs), and continue to play by the rules used for manned aircraft. The air force takes additional heat because there have not been any UAV collisions with their aircraft (which tend to stay above altitudes used by army UAVs), and those that have occurred were between army helicopters and small UAVs. No injuries yet, but the potential is there.
The ground commanders also point out that they are exposed to all sorts of firepower on the ground, while the air force hardly takes any casualties at all. That is only important insofar as restrictions on the use of army UAVs does not make air force people any safer, but does put more soldiers in danger. The ground troops really, really want to use their UAVs freely. When American forces entered Iraq in 2003, they brought fewer than two dozen UAVs with them. Now there are nearly a thousand in service. But, as far the army is concerned, the air force restrictions are killing people.

 


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