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Edited by Christian Lowe | Contact

AF Brass Bristle at Drone Decision


The Pentagon's number two official tried to throw cold water on this cat fight, but it seems that the fur is still flying.

On Sept. 13, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England forwarded a memorandum to the service chiefs and top Pentagon officials rejecting a recommendation that the Air Force be the central authority for high and medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles.

Air Force brass figured since they do most of the flying these days, the atmosphere - and most everything in it - should be their domain.

But over the last several years the Army has expanded its use of UAVs - particularly medium altitude ones - and they were dead-set against letting their sister service tear control of those assets out of their hands.

What England did was to shift oversight responsibility to the Pentagon, convening a task force that will examine UAV issues and map out a coherent strategy for all the services to develop drone needs, missions and systems, so resources aren't wasted and there's better coordination.

But that doesn't sit well with some top Air Force commanders who see this as more of the same.

"A committee has often been described as a cul-de-sac down which good ideas are lured and then quietly strangled," said Gen. Ronald Keys, commander of Air Combat Command, during a panel discussion with top Air Force generals in Washington.

"My thought is let's put somebody in charge of this, let's hold him accountable, and let's see if he can't sort this out," he said.

The Air Force's top general was more diplomatic in his criticism, arguing that England's decision is still new and a lot could come of the task force developing the UAV roadmap.

"There has to be a better way to do this," said Air Force chief, Gen. Michael "Buzz" Moseley. "I'm not unhappy with the steps that [England] has made in these first steps. There are more steps to go."

Moseley pointed to the need for an overall concept of operations, standardization in how to communicate and guide UAVs, a coherent way to manage all the drones flying around the battlefield and what will be needed to protect drones from an increasing air defense threat.

"This is a recognition of the environment that we have identified as Airmen because this battlespace is something we are very familiar with," Moseley added.

Drones have become an increasingly important part of military operations over the last decade. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the need for pinpoint surveillance of enemy activity, given the rugged terrain and inner-city warrens insurgents covet.

The explosion of unmanned systems has led to the recent debate over control of the drone fleet, a matter of particular worry to the Air Force which is concerned that the growing swarms of UAVs could endanger their manned and unmanned planes.

On the other hand, Army officials are reluctant to cede control of their drones for fear they won't be distributed overhead where they're needed most by commanders in combat.

"Now we're in a situation where the Army and the Air Force are essentially competing for production of UAVs. And that's not good," Keys said.

Nevertheless, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council - a Pentagon panel that advises civilian officials on the overall needs of the services - recommended this summer that the Air Force assume the role of "executive agent" for UAVs.

Then England stepped in.

"There's more work to be done; more demonstrating competency to be done; better work on defining requirements; better work on defining capacity. That's ahead of us," Moseley said.

It is unclear how this debate will eventually shake out. With the separate reports that need to be issued, the coordination of procurement and the development of an overall UAV architecture for all the services, there will certainly be more inter-service jockeying as the plans take shape.

"I'm not sure we don't know where every convoy is ... and whether I've got [surveillance] assets in the right place to see what needs to be seen before they drive into an ambush," Keys said. "That's what an executive agent works through to provide the capability to connect all these things."

-- Christian


That’s all we need, the Army needs to concentrate on its core duties instead of looking at AF duties. Isn’t Iraq a big enough mess on the Army’s watch? Most Army troops would not qualify for AF service; you can keep your gang bangers, “reformed” drug dealers and minor felons. Also, why is the Army whining and needing the AF and Navy to do their jobs…see convoy duties and other taskings. Last time I looked, the Air, Space and Cyberspace were safe and secure, the ground….not so much…so get off your high horses.

Posted by: JC at October 8, 2007 02:35 AM

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I will start with a brief exploration of the operational deployment of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Currently there are ten types of UAVs available and each of the services is operating at least two types. The operational characteristics of the various types range widely. For example, onboard sensors may be electro-optical, infrared, or live video. Control may be either remotely piloted or autonomous. Weighs range from under five pounds to 25,600 pounds and operational altitudes range from hundreds of feet to 67,000 feet. Some UAVs are stealth while others are vulnerable to enemy detection. At least two of the ten UAVs types can carry munitions and some carry jammers.
The use of UAVs over the last three years has grown at approximately 100% per year.

How did the DOD arrive at this point without a joint doctrine for UAVs? In the February 2006 issue of the Air Force magazine, Adam J. Hebert said; “The … services independently pursued their own unmanned aircraft plans, and the ‘stovepipes’ have all come together in the crowded airspace over Iraq. Joint concepts of operation are still lacking, as plans were individually developed for each service-bred system. Several incidents in which unmanned aircraft collided with the manned variety have highlighted the coordination problems.” UAV operations are not being deconflicted, the process used to ensure an aircraft mission does not conflict with other missions or fires. The incidents of UAVs colliding with manned aircraft demonstrate a potentially disastrous vulnerability resulting from the lack joint operational procedures.

When a UAV mission conflicts with artillery or naval fire, the potential loss is isolated to the UAV and the mention. When a UAV mission conflicts with a manned aircraft, the potential loss includes the pilot. I suggest it is appropriate for the Air Force to have a dedicated and ardent interest in joint doctrine and joint operational procedures.

Posted by: Chris at October 4, 2007 12:59 PM

Everyone out there needs to remember that we are all on the same team and that each team member has their own responsibility. Organization is the key to success and if everyone gets their hands into every aspect, we will have a mess. Being a pilot's wife, I can tell you that many of the pilots would love to see the Army have to deal with the UAV's (they would avoid getting pulled out of their aircraft to man them-not exactly a pilot's dream!). We have friends and family members in all branches and the only debates we have are playful-we all appreciate each other. The ground troops do a lot of the work, however, the air troops are there to back them up in a crisis. Every single job is important so please cease the degrading and debate professionally.

Posted by: tiperny at October 4, 2007 12:35 AM

I know let's change their name to the Army Air Corps and.......


Posted by: david at October 3, 2007 08:16 PM


No one is bashing the Air Force, the Air Force is bashing itself! To think that in a time of tight budgets that it would assert the need for more F-22s, a new Tanker, a new CSAR helicopter, a re-engined C-5, and control of all drones in operation and development, while simultaneously bashing the work that the US Army and Marine Corps are doing is simply criminal. If you've kept up with the statements coming from the Flag Officers in the Air Force then you'll realize that joint operations are not considered a priority. This latest power grab for control of UAV's is just the latest insult to the intelligence of the other services. The Air Force has a problem and Mosley sees it every time he looks in the mirror.

Shock and Awe??? That was a pipe dream from the 1920's that states that air power alone can win wars. War with Iran???? I hope to GOD that it doesn't happen but if it does rest assured that except for token appearances from B-2's, the legacy force of Air Force aircraft will carry the burden (along with about 3 carriers that'll be parked in the Gulf). So no service flag waving for the boys in blue. Sometimes its better just to shut up (speaking about Air Force Flag Officers), do your job and let the American public by way of its representatives decide what programs are essential for the nations security. These power grabs and public statements about all its doing to win the GWOT all by themselves should stop.

Posted by: Solomon at September 29, 2007 08:36 PM

With out bashing the Army I would say this. The Airforce still has a very vital role in natonal security. And it is vastly under size for what it should be. Personaly I think the Airforce's role in the world is very vital, they just need more of just about everything. However some people see that the war right now is mostly ground, but in a big nation show down (like Iran) the airforce will be the only thing that could prevent mass murder of Americans in Iraq. Dont forget that even though we are not at a war with an enemy who even has aiplanes, that possibility is very very real, and an Army chopper aint going to cut it. Im sad to see the airforce taking a beating over the last number of years. But remember Shock and Awe wasnt done by the Navy, or the Army (at least the majority) B-52s did a lot of work and bashed a lot of heads for us.

Posted by: 22lr at September 28, 2007 07:10 PM

Good Afternoon Folks,

Lets face it the Air Force is running out of things to do. The existing Minuteman III's will be the last ICBM's, bombers of all kinds in the active Air Force is down to less then 100, the carpet bombing in Afghanistan two weeks ago to get bin Laden by B-52's killed a few goats and moved some rocks according to the 82nd. Airborne Division who did the post bombing sweep and the BDA on the strike. With the 100th F-22's now delivered the active F-15 community is on it's way out the door, as soon as an F-15 Squdn. returns from the war zones it's redeployed into the National Guard. I can go on but I think the picture is clear to all.

In the next budget year (like next week) the Air Force is going to have to start RIFing 30-50K personal. None promotable O3's, O4,O5 and O6's are not sleeping to easy these nights. With an increase in demand from the airlines to replace pilots turing 60 there will be little incentive on the part of the active Air Force to keep these officers on active duty. When the F-35 come on line the same fate will happen to the F-16 drivers.

The idea of turning UCAV's over to the Air Force will be strongly resisted by the Army. In the early 60's when the Air Force too over all fixed wing tact air it was a desaster, the Army in not of a mind set to repete this error.

What's left for the Air Force, Space maybe, working with the National Intelligence Diractive or CIA?

With an Admiral who is a veteran of Pentagon Budget wars becomming CJCS next week pay back will become the order of the day. Remember the JFK can be heard on many Admirals breath.

In two weeks the Navy will issue a paper defining it's mission in the GWOT, the first since the 1980's. They already are dicussing protecting sea lanes, long range airborne maritime reconnaisance with countries that share a mutural interest and with countries that have no direct interest but chose to be allies with the United States. This should make some depressing reading for the Air Force.

Byron Skinner

Posted by: Byron Skinner at September 27, 2007 04:23 PM

They could just piss off everybody, and create a Drone version of the USSOCOM. :)

Posted by: Camp at September 27, 2007 03:38 PM

This latest dust-up and the comments made by senior Air Force leaders points to serious cultural problems in this service. Too many times the Air Force attempts to "go it alone"...England really needs to give these people some "wall to wall counseling"!

Posted by: Solomon at September 27, 2007 02:43 PM

Part of this is a turf battle, no doubt. Parts of it are also issues of air traffic control and EM spectrum allocation.

Based on open sources, most current UAVs lack the sense and avoid capabilities of a human pilot in a cockpit. Even if there's a human in the loop, the controller's looking at the world through the four corners of a TV screen.

Civilian ATC is largely a matter of vectoring aircraft away from one another, until you get to an airport; then you route planes into an approach pattern in a more or less orderly fashion. Tactical ATC is a different kettle of fish. There, you have to route both platforms and weapons towards a target set; the fog of war trumps any order you hoped for, and you may not want to establish any search or engagement pattern that the enemy can sense and avoid. Sometimes the best strategy in combat is to come from every direction at the same time.

That can make for a very crowded sky, particularly at low altitudes. Add OPSEC to that -- for example, do you really want a suspect Iraqi Army unit to hear that you have a Prowler scanning their AO? -- and it makes herding cats seem easy.

I'm amazed we haven't seen more accidents. As for the UAVs that we have lost, well, I haven't heard too much as to the causes, and I'm not sure you can take any such findings without a grain of salt, given OPSEC and CYA concerns. I mean, if someone lost a Hunter or a Predator to a collision or EM interference from another asset, would they tell us, or chalk it up to "human error"?

If this is a turf grab, USAF deserves a spanking. If it's an ATC thing, well, you can't have multiple ATC systems over the same AO. That's a recipe for a clusterf&ck.;

If that's what's going on, it's at least partially legit.

Posted by: demophilus at September 27, 2007 01:42 PM

There are historical reasons for not allowing ground commanders operational control of aircraft. In WWII in North Africa, for instance, some Commanders refused to allow "their" aircraft to assist units more heavily engaged than theirs. In short, aircraft were not properly and efficiently utilized.

Today we have doctrinal divisions of responsibility. In a joint/combined environment (which is the case in virtually every major operation), divisions of control and responsibility are divided into "components." So, under the overall Joint or Combined Commander there will be Commanders of each joint-force "component." These components are: Land, Air, Maritime and Special Operations. Each Commander in each of these three areas has control over all assets - no matter the service - in their respective area. So the Joint Force Land Component Commander (JFLCC) will maintain OPCON of all land forces be they Army, Marines, etc. Same with the other components. So unless basic US/NATO doctrine is changed, dividing the Air Force among the other services will no do much.

Where things would change is in procurement and expertise. If the Air Force was broken up and divided between the Army and Navy, would those services be able and willing to maintain the expertise in aerial warfare developed over the years, and plan and fund the required system intelligently? Who knows.

Posted by: Andy at September 27, 2007 01:16 PM

The DOD, rather than just tackling UAV issues, really ought to reopen the Key West Agreement.

It may have made sense at the time. History has shown, however, that the line drawn at Key West were a mistake.

The division has left CAS and logistics aircraft under-represented in the procurement process, has resulted in mismatches between logistics aircraft capabilities, and the systems they need to transport, has caused excessive reliance on helicopters and artillery in situations where fixed wing aircraft would be superior on the operational merits, and creates a command structure that doesn't naturally integrate well into combined air-sea-land operations (yes, coordination can be and is jury-rigged, but coordination should be the norm at the division or better yet brigade level, not a deviation from routine procedures).

There are also Navy-Army tensions (the Navy has likewise underinvested in logistics and fire support for ground forces), but those seem to be less stark and progress has been made in recent times on those fronts with initiatives like the USS Swift, the LCS and the DDG-1000 all of which have been more sensitive to Army needs.

And, while less dramatic, Air Force v. Navy turf considerations have probably resulted in an under-investment in non-carrier based fixed wing aircraft for anti-surface, anti-submarine and cruise missile launch missions.

Posted by: ohwilleke at September 27, 2007 01:06 PM

Count me among those who don't understand why a separate air force is a necessity. Why not just go back to the Army Air Corps days and put its assets under a unified command that can support troops on the ground?

Posted by: DanInKansas at September 27, 2007 12:38 PM

how about disbanding the Air Force and 'attach' the air force to army & naval Divisions?

The only other solution I see is a liaison Officer between the Air Force and the army with these operations. Even then that wouldn't fill me with confidence.

Posted by: Foreign.Boy at September 27, 2007 12:15 PM

I do think I read that most air mission are now being done by the navy and army in Iraq. They will find something for them to do.

Posted by: txzen at September 27, 2007 11:43 AM

seems like more and more the air force is being sidelined during the war on terror. and the fighter jock mentality keeps the air force fully performing its missions like cas. if this keeps up just like this move the army and navy will simply do the missions on it on.

Posted by: slntax at September 27, 2007 10:54 AM

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