Murphy's Law: January 9, 2004

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While UAVs (pilotless aircraft) are hot at the moment, many of those who have been pushing UAVs for decades are getting nervous when they think about the problems UAVs will have surviving future bureaucratic battles. This is because UAVs have a very troubled history when it comes to money and sound management. UAV technology was ready for prime time in the 1960s, and many were built and used heavily during the Vietnam war. But once there was no urgent demand because of a wartime situation, the UAVs went away. 

You see, a weapon system or other piece of equipment needs a home, an organization that will say; "this is mine and I will nurture and protect it." UAVs were orphans. While some organizations wanted them, usually for intelligence gathering, the air force had to own them. And the air force, an organization run by pilots, was not interested in aircraft that did not need pilots. 

Even ICBMs were reluctantly embraced by the air force. At first, the air force was willing to let the army blow large chunks of its budget on ICBMs (which the army considered, with some logic, very long range artillery.) But then, in the late 1950s, the Russians got into the ICBM game and all of a sudden Congress and the Department of Defense was throwing lots of money at ICBMs. The air force muscled the army out of the way and grabbed the ICBM business (although it lost the seagoing missiles to the navy.) 

Unfortunately, the Russians never made a big thing about UAVs. No one did, except the Israelis, who used them with great success. But the Israelis were our friends, not a potential foe. UAVs could not find a home. Congress, and people in the Department of Defense, would periodically point out how useful UAVs were, and some UAV projects got money. But no one claimed to "own" UAVs. It got to the point where anyone could take the money and develop a UAV. The air force didn't care. 

Now, it appears, the aviation community in all three services are getting interested in UAVs. This is mainly because the technology has become so cheap, reliable and powerful. And useful. Other nations are building UAVs. Even the Iraqis in last year's war had some. Just like the late 1950s "missile gap" scare that frightened the U.S. Air Force into embracing ICBMs, the prospect of the cheap, lethal and reliable UAVs showing up in enemy arsenals has scared the Department of Defense pilot generals (army, navy and air force) to put money into UAVs. But not too much, and not with the same care and attention that manned aircraft get. UAVs are still the barely tolerated step-children. 

Remember that even after the air force made the ICBM it's own in the 1960s, it continued to devote more money and attention to the design, construction and use of manned bombers. But UAVs are somewhat different, in that non-aviation communities are building and using them. SOCOM (Special Operations Command), the army and marines are spreading money around for mini-UAVs (weighing under ten pounds) for the troops to use. Support troops are spending their own money to develop and buy UAVs. That's because these things are cheap. Very cheap. For a few thousand bucks you have your own private recon aircraft. 

All of this may just work out for the best. In typical military fashion, all development for a particular weapon or piece of equipment is monopolized by one bureaucracy. But with UAVs, there is no central organization controlling all UAV development and construction. Troops have long complained about the shabby, expensive and late arriving gear produced by the military bureaucracies, compared to better stuff available from civilian firms. UAV development is dispensing with the centralized bureaucracy, and the technology is developing in many different places. One way to measure the success of this is the fact that some of these military UAVs are finding civilian customers. The strange history of the orphan UAVs may prove a practical demonstration of better ways to develop and build military equipment.

 


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