Services chafe at Air Force’s unmanned-aircraft proposal

The Air Force has taken its fight to become the executive agency for all medium- and high-altitude unmanned aircraft to Capitol Hill, prompting other military services to mount campaigns to defend their territory.

For instance, the Army — chafing at the Air Force’s proposal to take control of some of its air assets — is preparing a response of its own.

The Air Force’s move could shift allegiances on the Hill because a proposal of such scale would affect missions, budgets, facilities and training.

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In particular, lawmakers from states that have lost Air National Guard and Reserve missions as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Round (BRAC) may support the service’s idea as a way to preserve missions in their states.
The Air Force effort comes amid increasing interest from lawmakers in the use of robotics in combat. Legislators currently are pushing the services to buy more such systems in a tightening fiscal environment.

The Air Force initiated its campaign to become the executive agent for all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying 3,500 feet and higher in 2005. The initiative was shot down, first by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and subsequently by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC), which reviews programs of joint service interest.

Gen. Michael Moseley was the Air Force’s vice chief of staff at the time. Now, as chief of staff, Moseley has renewed the push, but this time sources say he went first to Capitol Hill, bypassing the normal Pentagon chain of command.

However, a memo detailing the request that Moseley signed on March 5 was addressed to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chiefs of the other services and combatant commanders.

In it, Moseley makes the case that the Air Force is organized, trained and equipped to be the executive agent and therefore the change represents a cost-effective option. The executive agent’s authority takes precedence over the authority of other Pentagon components — in other words, the executive agent has the reins of the budget and acquisition.

Executive agencies are generally a temporary organizational measure. Critics of the Air Force’s plan say a working arrangement is in place, in the form of the Joint Unmanned Center of Excellence and the Joint Unmanned Material Review Board.

Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in early April referred the issue back to the JROC to keep it within the Pentagon.  Giambastiani chairs JROC.

When the Air Force Friday held an internal Pentagon meeting about the issue, to which it invited the Navy, Marine Corps and Army, no representatives of the services showed, leaving the matter in JROC hands, according to a source.
The Air Force’s maneuver has sent the Army — which uses the most UAVs — on the defensive both on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon.

The Army has prepared slides and a combat video in which a Hunter UAV works with an Apache attack helicopter to confirm and then defeat an enemy group in Iraq setting up roadside bombs. The Army, along with representatives of the other services, is expected to address the issue officially in a House Armed Services Committee hearing tomorrow.

The Army is working to prove that allowing the Air Force to exercise authority over the UAVs, as it does over space programs, would limit tactical forces’ efficacy.

“You are basically taking the flashlight out of a policeman’s hands,” the deputy director of Army aviation, Col. John Burke, said in an interview. “All the distinguished ground-forces commanders have used UAVs in combat as division commanders or as tactical commanders. These guys have gotten very used to using UAVs as an integrated part of their tactical scheme of maneuver.”

The Army has a “tremendous operational concern” when it comes to consolidating UAVs “in some sort of acquisition efficiency,” Burke said.

“If it were a Harvard business case study it would be one thing,” Burke added.

“We are talking about combat operations with lethal effects down there where there are soldier, sailors, airmen, marines and special-operation forces.”

The Army has had to defend its Warrior medium-altitude UAV program, which critics, including the Government Accountability Office, have said is too similar to the Air Force’s Predator UAV.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a defense appropriator, recently questioned the need for the Army to pursue the Warrior. He expressed concern about duplication, ultimately voicing support for the executive-agent idea.

Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) said he was “intrigued” by the idea and that an executive agency would not prevent the other services from using UAVs, but could influence their acquisition authority. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) has lashed out at the Air Force’s plans.

The Predator was a sole-source contract awarded to General Atomics as part of an advanced concept program. The Army competed with its program; General Atomics ultimately won. According to the service, the Warrior’s systems architecture is different. The Air Force has bought two Warrior aircraft for testing, Burke said.

At the heart of the issue is a philosophical difference between the Army’s and the Air Force’s use of UAVs: The former views them as tactical and the latter as strategic technology. The Air Force defines UAVs as full-motion video intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

“The Army and the other services do not agree with that, particularly with the Warrior, [UAVs] are multi-mission systems: They do imagery, they do signals intelligence, communications relay, weapons manned-unmanned teaming. Their only purpose is not to collect full-motion video,” Burke said.

For the Air Force, UAVs are at the bottom level of a global intelligence infrastructure, Burke said.

Under the Air Force’s executive-agent proposal, which promises savings of $1.7 billion, the Army, Marine Corps and Navy would keep control of only their smaller, hand-thrown UAVs, such as Raven and EagleScout. Altogether the services would lose direct control of Shadow UAV, Hunter, Warrior and Firescout, Tier III systems (Marine Corps) and the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance systems.