Magazine article National Defense

Drone Fever: Army on a Fast Track to Build Its Own High-Tech Air Force

Magazine article National Defense

Drone Fever: Army on a Fast Track to Build Its Own High-Tech Air Force

Article excerpt

* The Army soon will begin deploying larger quantities of remotely piloted surveillance aircraft--the high-tech kind that so far only have been operated by the U.S. Air Force.


The scope and pace of the Army's unmanned aircraft buildup has been described by one official as a "California gold rush."

The centerpieces of the Army's unmanned warplane fleet will be the Shadow and Sky Warrior aircraft. It plans to acquire more than 300 of these two variants during the next five years. Nearly a hundred aircraft already are in the inventory.

In addition to purchasing new planes, the Army will equip them with advanced sensors, networking systems and weapons, which effectively gives the Army capabilities to conduct aerial warfare that up until now were predominantly only available to the Air Force.

The introduction of new systems gradually has accelerated during the past two years, as Army commanders vehemently have argued that the Air Force's Predator UAVs are good enough for "theater level" surveillance but not sufficient to support ground forces' needs for real-time video of their immediate surroundings.

The Army's frustration about having limited access to UAV imagery reached a boiling point in Afghanistan, where commanders claimed that some smaller units were fighting blind because they didn't have UAVs tracking enemy positions.

Troops in hostile areas cannot afford to wait for the UAVs to be rerouted; they need support 24/7, said Timothy Muchmore, director of the Army Quadrennial Defense Review at the office of the deputy chief of staff for programs. Units have experienced great disappointments in the way UAVs have been used in Afghanistan over the past couple of years, Muchmore said at a Washington, D.C., conference hosted by Aviation Week.

"The air power provided by our sister services has dominated the third dimension, but the Army is unable to leverage that third dimension," Muchmore said. During the past year, "We've had two combat outposts overrun by superior forces. Those are losses that we consider unacceptable, because we couldn't see what was going on around the outposts."

Because the UAVs are not always available to small units, these troops end up getting ambushed, Muchmore lamented. This issue has been the subject of contentious discussions at the Pentagon. Air Force officials insist that its Predators work exclusively in support of ground units.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., pressed Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey to explain why his service wasn't working more closely with the Air Force to address these issues, and duplicating capabilities that blue-suiters already have.

"I've been working, frankly, directly with the Air Force chief for almost two years on the UAV issue," Casey told Nelson. "I can't look you in the eye and tell you we've eliminated all the redundancies, senator. But we will continue to work closely with the Air Force to avoid that."


Turf warfare aside, the Army has been able to secure financial support from the Defense Department to embark on a massive buildup of its UAV fleet.

The Army is requesting $507 million in fiscal year 2011 to buy 29 MQ-1 Sky Warriors. Nelson cited $2.9 billion requested between 2011 and 2015 for 158 additional aircraft. The Air Force, meanwhile, requested $1.1. billion in 2011 to purchase 48 MQ-9 Reapers--a much larger aircraft than the Predator. It plans to spend $7.3 billion on 341 Reapers by 2015.

Air Force officials have criticized the Army (National Defense, January 2010, page 20) for buying essentially the same aircraft that the Air Force already is acquiring, which creates an inefficient production line and adds administrative costs.

So far, the Army has deployed four Sky Warriors in Iraq and is expected to ship four others to Afghanistan in July, said Tim Owings, the Army's deputy project manager of unmanned aircraft. …

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