Magazine article National Defense

Friendly Advice

Magazine article National Defense

Friendly Advice

Article excerpt

Air Force to Army: There are better ways to deploy surveillance aircraft

Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly shamed the Air Force in April 2008 for not contributing enough surveillance airplanes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dozens of robotic and piloted aircraft have since been deployed to the war zones. But Air Force officials are now trying to make a case that a shortage of surveillance systems cannot be solved only by sending over more airplanes. The problem is not that there are too few aircraft, but that they are employed inefficiently, Air Force officials contend.

The Air Force particularly objects to the way the Army deploys its long-endurance "Shadow" and "Sky Warrior" unmanned aircraft, which are controlled by individual brigades and not shared across all units in the theater. The Army's UAVs also are underutilized, Air Force officials say, because of the downtime associated with brigade rotations. By contrast, the Air Force operates UAVs remotely 24/7 from bases in the United States.

The U.S. military needs a "joint approach" to employing UAVs that makes the most efficient use of the aircraft and promotes the "wisest use of tax dollars," says an Air Force briefing written by Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the service's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. All U.S. aircraft should operate according to standard rules for how they are deployed, and how airspace is controlled and defended, the briefing document says. It also suggests that the Pentagon should consolidate the procurement of UAVs under a single service in order to save money and make production more efficient

The Air Force is especially unhappy about the current method of use for what it calls "theater-capable" UAVs - those that can operate beyond the line of sight and fly at altitudes above 20,000 feet. They include the Air Force's Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk, the Army's Sky Warrior and the Navy's Fire Scout

The Air Force would like to see all theater capable UAVs placed under the authority of the joint force commander, rather than a single unit commander. Conversely, the lower altitude, smaller UAVs should be left at the control of local unit commanders, the Air Force recommends. Under the current system, "theater-capable UAVs are treated as local-effects assets," the briefing paper says. "This sub-optimizes the resources available to the joint force commander."

In an interview, Deptula insists that this issue is by no means an Air Force- Army turf battle. "Sometimes this is depicted as an Air Force versus Army feud, when it's really a difference in perspective between a theater commander and a unit commander." He points out that the joint force commanders in both Iraq and Afghanistan are Army officers, and so are the local brigade commanders. The Air Force works in support of Army joint force commanders, he says, so this debate is not about taking any authority away from the Army but rather about helping the Defense Department get the most bang for its UAV investment.

The Air Force also believes that it is far more productive to fly UAVs from U.S. bases, in what it calls "remote split operations." The Air Force currently runs six operations centers in the United States and five "launch and recovery" units in theater.

Air Force fighter pilots who fly Predators and Reapers from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., privately have criticized the Army's decision to not conduct remote split operations. They question why the Army opts for the line-ofsight approach that does not leverage the latest technology.

The Army, for example, has 248 Shadow UAVs in its inventory, but only 78 are deployed. What that says is that Army commanders are not making the best use of the equipment, says one Air Force fighter pilot who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The problem with the Army's approach is that brigades, after a 1 2 to 1 5-month tour, have to go home and reconstitute, so UAVs end up with a lot of down time. …

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