DoD’s England will soon settle Pentagon turf battle on drones

Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England is expected to decide as early as Thursday whether the Air Force should become the executive agency for all medium-and high-altitude drones, capping a bitter turf battle between the Air Force and the rest of the military services.

But England’s impending decision, after a meeting of the so-called Deputy Advisory Working Group (DAWG), may not be able to stymie a potential legislative fight on the Hill, where strong allegiances — both in favor of and opposing the Air Force’s proposal to become the executive agency — have formed.

The Air Force’s proposal could affect missions, budgets, facilities and training.

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

The Air Force has aggressively made the case both at the Pentagon and on the Hill that it is organized, trained and equipped to be the executive agent and that therefore the change represents a cost-effective option.

The Air Force’s proposal promises savings of $1.7 billion, prompting skepticism from the other services, which say the Air Force has had cost overruns on its own drone programs.

After a previous attempt was rejected in 2005, the Air Force renewed its campaign this spring to become the executive agent for all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) flying at 3,500 feet and higher. In July, the Pentagon’s Joint Oversight Requirements Council endorsed the establishment of an executive agency for medium- and high-altitude unmanned aircraft systems under the Secretary of the Air Force. 

The endorsement prompted outcry from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Special Operations Command, whose leaders asked for the issue to be discussed under the auspices of DAWG, so that acquisition representatives could formally review the proposal.

While Congress has mostly left the decision to the Pentagon, members on both sides have been writing letters to England in anticipation of his decision. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), together with the rest of the Alabama delegation, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Air Force’s proposal.

Shelby has been going head to head with fellow defense appropriator Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who has taken the Air Force’s side and has been pushing for the executive agency concept. 

For a third consecutive year, Shelby inserted language in the defense appropriations bill that would prohibit the transfer of research and development, acquisition or program authority relating to tactical unmanned aerial vehicles from the Army.
The language would also ensure that the Army will retain operational control over and responsibility for the Extended Range Multi-Purpose (ERMP) UAV. That drone is the Sky Warrior, a system that has been in the Air Force’s crosshairs and plays a pivotal role in the service’s argument that it ought to become the executive agency. The Air Force flies the Predator UAV, a system considered similar to the Sky Warrior.

The decision to make the Air Force the executive agency over high-flying UAVs could have a detrimental effect on Alabama. Fort Rucker, Ala., is the Army’s primary UAV Center of Excellence, which ensures that doctrine and training techniques are in line with integrating the drones on the battlefield.

At Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala. — where most of the Army’s UAV work is managed — more than 250 people are connected with the UAV programs, bringing $66 million into the local economy, according to several reports.

Shelby, who traveled to Iraq over the August recess, made sure to talk to battlefield commanders there about the executive agency concept. Commanders, he said, “agreed that the Army needs to maintain control of their UAS [unmanned aerial systems] assets because from a tactical standpoint, our soldiers in the field need a versatile, service-specific capability.”

After the most recent Pentagon base realignment and closure round, North Dakota lost Air National Guard F-16 fighter jet missions in Fargo. In order not to lose people, North Dakota and in particular Grand Forks Air Base could stand to attract more UAV work. The Air Force envisions Grand Forks to house a series of UAVs.

But Dorgan argues that his fight is not about jobs, but about eliminating duplication and waste. “We are already going to have UAVs assigned to North Dakota,” Dorgan said. He added he would like to see reform within the Pentagon.

In recent congressional hearings, Dorgan questioned the need for the Army to pursue the Sky Warrior. 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.

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. The Air Force has bought two Warrior aircraft for testing.

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. Also, the Air Force uses trained pilots to fly the drones, while the Army trains its soldiers to do so.

But Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley said in an interview with The Hill earlier this year that he is “not trying to poach anybody’s territory, nor am I trying to degrade or deny any tactical requirement. I am trying to make it faster, better, more in-depth, more robust and get it fielded faster.”