Leadership: Logic Versus Experience

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January 20, 2010:  Two years ago, the U.S. Army thought it had a deal with the Air Force, to settle a dispute over who should control army UAVs. Back then, the army and air force agreed to amend the half century understanding (the "Treaty of Key West") that restricted what kind of aircraft the army could use. The 1950s agreement ended nearly a decade of bickering about how much control over U.S. military aircraft the newly created (in 1947) air force should have. Early on, the air force sought to control, well, everything. The navy and marines fought the air force to a draw, but the army came off less well. The army was allowed to have all the new (and untried) helicopters it could get its hands on, but was restricted to only a few fixed wing aircraft, and none of them could be large or armed. The army was not happy with this, but the Key West deal, forced on them by president (and former army general) Eisenhower, at least ended the constant feuding and uncertainty.

But with the arrival of effective and numerous, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), the Key West deal has been undone. The air force protested, and was rebuffed by Department of Defense brass. Now the army could have fixed wing combat aircraft again, but they cannot carry any people, not even pilots. Recently the air force  announced that again wanted to control all large UAVs, in the name of efficiency and saving money. The army was not amused.

The air force wants all larger UAVs put into a joint command, that would contain army and air force UAVs, and army and air force commanders. The army is strongly opposed to this, and wants UAVs assigned, permanently, to divisions and brigades. Air force officers cannot understand how important this "organic" (to a combat brigade or division) approach is to the army. But the army knows, from long experience, that having UAV units as permanent components of combat brigades and divisions, is essential to building trust and capability. The army likes to point out that the U.S. Marine Corps has its own fixed wing combat aircraft (F-18s and AV-8s), and that these pilots are generally considered superior at providing ground support, to soldiers as well as marines. While some air force pilots have come to appreciate this, the air force, as an institution, never got it. As the air force sees it, by keeping UAVs pooled, more sorties can be flown, even if by a group of army and air force operators who have no personal connection with the units on the ground. The army says the loss of additional sorties is worth it. The two services have never been able to resolve these different outlooks.

Meanwhile, UAVs, in particular the Predator (and its derivatives, the Reaper and Sky Warrior) are changing the way wars are fought. In addition, the army has built a fleet of several thousand smaller UAVs. The air force protested all this at the time, but the army was doing most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and had the clout to persuade the air force to change the rules about what kind of aircraft the army could have. Now the army has over 500 Sky Warriors  on order.

But the two services have been unable to agree on how to use, and share, this growing fleet of armed UAVs. That's because the air force and army use their UAVs differently. For the army, the UAV is a tool for the local combat commander. That's why each combat division will get a Sky Warrior squadron. Combat brigades will also get detachments (of two to four UAVs) as needed (even though the brigades always have several smaller Shadow 200 UAVs assigned.)

The air force uses Predator and Reaper class UAVs more as strategic recon and strike aircraft, and puts them at the disposal of the most senior combat commander in the region (currently, the head of CENTCOM). The air force believed that the army policy of assigning Sky Warriors to brigade and division commanders was wasteful, because many would be sitting on the ground when the CENTCOM commander has a mission that would benefit from the maximum number of UAVs being used. But the army convinced the air force that for the combat brigade commander, having those UAVs under his command, all the time, is essential to planning and carrying out combat operations. Too often in the past, getting the needed number of aircraft from the air force/navy "pool" was chancy, and a major headache for ground commanders. This new policy isn't all that new. During World War II, the Russians gave ground commanders their own air forces, for the same reason American commanders still need them 70 years later. 

General Atomics, the manufacturer of the Predator UAV, is developing the new Sky Warrior UAV. The army wants 45 squadrons (each with 12 UAVs), at a cost of about $8 million per aircraft (including ground equipment). The Sky Warrior weighs 1.5 tons, carries 300 pounds of sensors internally, and up to 500 pounds of sensors or weapons externally. It has an endurance of up to 36 hours and a top speed of 270 kilometers an hour. Sky Warrior has a wingspan 56 feet and is 28 feet long. The Sky Warrior is heavier than the one ton Predator, and a bit larger and more capable in general. Basically, it's "Predator Plus", with the added ability to land and take off automatically, and carry four Hellfire missiles (compared to two on the Predator).

The size of the army UAV force also scares the air force. The Sky Warrior will be carrying Hellfire missiles and Viper Strike smart bombs. The army has also been discussing developing its own version of "JDAM Lite." This would be a hundred pound GPS guided smart bomb, which would have about fifty pounds of explosives. That's about the same bang as the new air force SDB (the 250 pound "Small Diameter Bomb"), which also has a steel penetrator. The Hellfire carries about ten pounds of explosives, and Viper Strike two pounds. The GPS guided 155mm Excalibur artillery shell has about 20 pounds of explosives, and the 227mm GPS guided MLRS rocket, with 150 pounds of explosives. "JDAM Lite" would fit into this arsenal nicely. The air force sees all these army "smart weapons" as replacing the need for air force close air support. That's what the army is thinking, as they want to control their own "death from above," and not be forced to ask the air force (which often turns them down.)

While the air force has agreed to coexist with the new army air force, the army has also agreed to work out how to handle the new traffic problems. Sky Warrior has a max ceiling of 29,000 feet, which puts it up there (above 10,000 feet) where the large, manned, air force aircraft operate. Below 10,000 feet, especially below a thousand feet, pilots are warned to be alert for army artillery shells and rockets, as well as the five pound Raven UAVs. Basically, it's dangerous down low, although army helicopter pilots survive. But they can move slowly, while air force jets require the army guys to make sure the air is clear (of little UAVs and large artillery shells) before coming on the deck for some gunnery. The air force A-10 pilots do this all the time, but it can be unnerving for an F-16 pilot. So the air force and the army have formed a group to not only work out new rules, but to keep an eye on the situation indefinitely, because there will always be new aircraft and technology to work into the air control system.

The war on terror, and the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have created a radical change in the way air power supports the ground troops. Blame it all on UAVs and smart bombs. The former made aircraft much more effective at reconnaissance, while the latter made aircraft much more effective at close air support. Both of these changes were radical, not just incremental little improvements on what had been done before. Now the army has gained direct control over the new combat aircraft (the larger UAVs), while also acquiring smart (GPS guided) shells and rockets. The air force is still useful (for gaining and maintaining control of the air, and for air transport), but it is not as critical as it was before. The air force has lost much of its usefulness at reconnaissance and direct combat support. This is a major shift in combat power, and it will now be up to the army, much more so than in the past, to develop new strategies and tactics for the use of air power. The U.S. Army Air Force, which dissolved into the U.S. Air Force in 1947, is back.

 


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