A second turf war over control of unmanned aerial vehicles is underway after sharp criticism from a senior Air Force general who said the Army is not efficiently deploying its fleet of medium-sized remotely piloted aircraft.
Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said in a statement the 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.”
However, one Army aviation official at a recent industry conference described the controversy as a “fight,” and said the service will oppose any efforts to put control of its aircraft in the hands of outsiders.
“It’s important we put up a good fight, in conferences on the Hill and everywhere we can,” said Lt. Col. James J. Cutting, chief of the unmanned aerial systems division at the Army headquarters aviation directorate.
Army medium-altitude, long-endurance aircraft such as the Sky Warrior — and the soon to be deployed extended range/multi-purpose UAV — remain under control of brigade commanders and are operated in theater by pilots and controllers who are deployed with the troops they serve. Deptula, among other proposals, recommended that these assets be placed under the control of joint regional commands.
Two years ago, the services fought a public battle over who should control UAVs that fly over 3,500 feet. The Air Force argued that as the military’s main aviation branch, it should control what flies in the higher altitudes. The Army ultimately won the right to operate its aircraft.
Deptula told National Defense that this issue was not another turf battle because the Air Force was not seeking control of the UAVs.
Army aviation officers countered that the Air Force — when employing aircraft such as the Predator and Reaper — was not responsive to the needs of ground forces, and that operators have been known to fly the UAVs off in the middle of operations to perform other previously scheduled tasks. In short, Air Force operated surveillance aircraft cannot be counted on in the heat of battle, said officials at an Army Aviation Association of America conference.
They intended to fight any attempt to place control of their UAVs under anyone but brigade commanders. What they call the “organic” capabilities of the UAVs are crucial to the way they operate. Further, they gave several anecdotes to back up their contentions.
Having an “organic” capability with their UAVs means the operators train and fight with their Army brethren. They know the battlefield plans from the beginning and have no duties other than supporting soldiers on the ground with overhead surveillance and reconnaissance and Hellfire missiles that can be called in to stop enemies.
Col. Gregory Gonzalez, Army UAS project manager, told reporters that he was in a command-and-control center in Afghanistan last October when insurgents nearly overran an outpost in the Hindu Kush Mountains. Eight soldiers lost their lives in the battle.
“Because the Army has a tactic to have direct support of these brigades, they were able to dynamically task some of our Army unmanned aircraft systems to find the enemy that was attacking those in the combat outpost,” Gonzalez said.
The sensor payloads were used to find the assailants, then Army helicopters and Air Force aircraft were called in to take out the attackers’ positions.
“Had it not been for that ability to immediately task those [Army unmanned] aircraft, we could have seen a much different outcome. And many of the soldiers who did come off of that [command outpost] alive, may not have,” Gonzalez said.
A reporter asked if handing over the control of Army UAVs to joint commanders could potentially cost lives.
“Unequivocally yes,” said Col. Robert Sova, capability manager for unmanned aerial systems for the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
He was at an unspecified command-and control-center when an Air Force UAV stumbled upon an insurgent placing an improvised explosive device along a road. Normally, operators would want to follow a suspected terrorist after he has finished his work, so they could follow him to his home, or perhaps to a bomb-making factory. However, at the end of the aircraft’s allotted time, it broke away. Air Force UAV pilots have tasking orders, so their time flying in one area is sometimes limited.
“Even though it had eyes on a situation that could have been exploited and developed, it departed station because its time was done,” Sova said. Since the UAV was unarmed, there was no recourse other than letting the insurgent go about his work. Had that been an Army aircraft, it could have been directed to remain in the area, he said.
“Could [the tasking order] have been changed? Yes it could have been, but somebody made the determination that there was a need for that [UAV] to break station and go to a different target area,” Sova said.
Another of Deptula’s criticisms is that Army UAV operators train with their brigades. When a brigade returns to its home base for dwell time, the UAVs return with them. That is not an efficient use of U.S. aircraft, Deptula maintained. Meanwhile, the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan has a chronic shortage of the aircraft, and the Air Force has endured criticism from Defense Secretary Robert Gates for not fielding Predators and Reapers quickly enough.
Sova likened the Army UAV doctrine to quarterbacks in the National Football League. A team wouldn’t bring in on a Sunday a substitute quarterback who hasn’t practiced with the team. He can’t just show up to play and expect to know the system. It’s the same with an Air Force UAV arriving in the midst of a battle.
“You don’t want a UAV showing up where the pilot knows nothing of the mission,” Sova said.
“Even if you do get another aircraft from another service, it may get a higher priority mission that you have no control over, and you can lose your support,” Sova said.
Trust between Army units and the UAV operators is important, he added. “They work together, and they know each other’s playbook.”
As for the aircraft returning to the states with their units for training, Gonzalez suggested that there might be some wiggle room. Contractors could potentially take their place, he said. UAV platoons could also stay on to support other divisions. However, “you start to wear down your soldiers pretty quickly if you do that,” he added.
Deptula said the remote-split operation doctrine that the Air Force currently employs is the most efficient way to deploy the aircraft.
In this type of operation, UAV pilots and sensor operators are not in theater, but at Air Force bases in the United States. According to Deptula, 132 UAVs supporting four Army divisions can perform 34 aerial patrol missions if they fly in remote split operations, but only 12 patrols under the organic concept favored by the Army.
In June 2008, the Air Force funded a joint Army-Air Force demonstration to show how the Army’s Shadow UAV could be flown remotely from the United States. In the experiment, a Shadow was launched from China Lake, Calif., and was controlled from Fort Belvoir, Va., which is 2,500 miles nautical miles away. The Air Force concluded that the Army could increase the capability of the Shadow fleet by 300 percent under a remote split operations concept.
However, Army aviation officials said the exercise only demonstrated the shortcomings of remote-split operations.
“There were a lot of technical glitches with a Shadow system,” Tim Owings, deputy project manager for Army UAS said. And “we lost a lot of synergy.”
Cutting admitted that the office of the secretary of defense has asked him why the Army can’t deploy more of its remotely piloted assets in theater.
“We will not bend on split ops,” he insisted. It is a question of efficiency versus effectiveness. “We will place these capabilities at the lowest possible echelons that it makes sense.”
The way the Air Force responds to requests for its unmanned aircraft is another issue, Cutting said. A brigade commander has a four-day planning cycle, but he doesn’t know if an Air Force Predator will be available until 12 to 18 hours before the mission. The Shadow platoon under his command is the only UAV asset he can count on.
He has to take into consideration that an Air Force Predator may not be available at all. If he does find out late in the planning cycle that one is available, then it is placed on secondary targets. The Air Force has excellent crews and aircraft, but in these cases, they are relegated to a backup role, Cutting said.
“It means that the most capable aircraft is given a secondary target,” he added. Also, the Air Force has a harder time receiving approval to shoot their Hellfire missiles, he said.
Cutting said the Army needs to firmly state its positions on UAV operations.
“We try to represent the Army’s position as best we can. But there’s always the possibility that the boss calls us and says, ‘I understand. Now here’s my decision. Drive on,’” he said.
“To date, I think we have been very successful in showing our case to civilian leadership,” he added.
Still, Cutting acknowledged that the Army may not win this turf war. “It won’t be the first time the Army doesn’t get its way,” he said.