Leadership: Army Fights To Control Its Air Space

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May 23,2008: U.S. Air Force generals were not happy recently when their boss, the Secretary of Defense, publically chastised them for not getting enough of their Predator UAVs into the air over Iraq and Afghanistan, where they could do the combat troops on the ground the most good. The air force promptly ordered more Predators into the combat zone, and began flying more sorties, which soon doubled the hours Predators were in the air.

Now it's payback time. The air force has deployed pundits pointing out that more Predators in the air is not the problem, but a "common picture" of what is on the ground, and what is in the air. The air force is using the situation to call again for them to be given control of all large (roughly twenty pounds or more) UAVs. This would enable the air force to standardize sensors, and data collected, so there would be a common picture.

The air force also wants all UAVs to play by manned aircraft rules. That means filing a flight plan with the air force before taking off. The air force is insistent about 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. For the guys on the ground, the UAVs have become a matter of life and death, and they often don't know in advance when they will need them. To the soldiers, the UAV is no more of an obstacle to other aircraft than artillery shells 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 over a thousand in service.

The army is also not as concerned with a "common picture" as is the air force. The vast majority of army UAVs are the five pound Ravens, which are only concerned with what is beneath them. Combat commanders depend on these micro-UAVs to run battles. Raven provides all the information they need, and the last thing they want is air force involvement.

The air force has been trying to play nice by providing data communications gear that enables army troops to view Predator video in real time. That's sometimes even helpful. But the army is building their own Predators (Predator C, or "Sky Warrior"). It's all about control. In the heat of battle, the army does not want to be forced to go through the air force bureaucracy to get access to a UAV.

The "common picture" problem is a separate thing entirely. Also called data fusion, it has more to do with intelligence collection and analysis on a larger scale. The army is mostly concerned with winning battles, and that's where they see controlling their own UAVs as essential.

What the air force is really worried about is not getting chastised by the boss, but being put out of a job by new technology. The UAVs take away the original job for the air force, air reconnaissance. Now smart bombs have made it so easy to deliver accurate firepower to the ground troops that even the new army Predator can drop them.

 


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