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-of-sight 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 12 to 15-month tour, have to go home and reconstitute, so UAVs end up with a lot of down time. The Air Force offers more continuity and flexibility, he says. Operators at Creech, for instance, can redirect Predators in real time between theaters.
“If there’s a sand storm in Iraq, we can surge in another theater,” the pilot says. That is beneficial to Army troops on the ground, he says. Another advantage of remote split operations is that Predator and Reaper pilots work with the same Army or Marine Corps unit day in and day out, so they develop a rapport.
According to Deptula’s briefing charts, 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., 2,500 miles nautical miles from the war zone. The Air Force concluded that the Army could increase the capability of the Shadow fleet by 300 percent under a remote split operations concept.
In a statement in response to questions from National Defense, Army officials defend their approach to deploying UAVs. “By collocating the UAS [unmanned air system] operators with their supported units, we gain significant effectiveness through habitual relationships,” the statement says. “The UAS is a component of the unit they are overwatching — they train with them prior to deployment and fly daily for the same commanders on the ground, and are involved with the planning of operations from start to finish. This enables the UAS soldiers to fully understand the capabilities, limitations, tactics, techniques and procedures of a specific unit conducting a specific mission. They also gain expertise in the terrain and enemy of certain areas — they notice little things that have changed and understand what these changes may indicate.
“By placing these assets under operational control of a ground commander, he literally owns the capability and is assured this critical support. These kinds of synergy cannot be realized using a general support scheme,” says the statement provided by Maj. Jimmie Cummings, an Army spokesman.
With the Air Force’s recommendation that theater-level UAVs should not be attached to individual brigades, the Army respectfully disagrees. “The Army preserves unit integrity for brigade combat teams, and for many good reasons, but primarily to optimize effectiveness,” says the statement. The 2008 demonstration with the Shadow proved that it was technically possible to conduct remote split operations with an aircraft one-eighth the size of an Air Force Predator, but the Army’s leadership determined that it is not operationally practical to do so, and the concept was not pursued further.
Another Air Force gripe is how the Army controls the air space over war zones. Commanders divvy up the air space, creating so-called “restricted operating zones,” or bubbles around a specific area of the battlefield. “That’s not smart,” says the Air Force pilot speaking anonymously. He says this approach is risky because there is no single command-and-control authority to identify friendly from enemy aircraft. The restricted zones may work as long as there are no enemy UAVs around, but they do create opportunities for adversaries to sneak in UAVs into U.S.-controlled airspace, the pilot says.
Deptula says the notion of segregating the airspace the way the Army does can create unnecessary chaos.
“If you have a multitude of restricted operated zones controlled by different units on the ground; if there’s a call for air support, who does the A-10 or F-16 talk to when they have to go through multiple restricted operating zones?” he asks. “Today, generally the solution is that it’s an emergency, you take your chances and you fly through it. But there is a better way.”
He says senior officials from all services currently are working on “integrated air space control procedures.” The issue will take on even more urgency if and when an adversary UAV enters the air space, he says. “You can’t afford to have individual separate air space control authorities for each of these restricted operating zones,” Deptula says. “These issues are being discussed.”
Also a hot-button issue is the Army’s decision to buy its own version of the Predator, called the Sky Warrior. Air Force officials have groaned about the Army’s expenditure of a billion dollars to develop the Sky Warrior when the Air Force already has a similar aircraft.
Deptula again downplays inter-service rivalries and calls it simply a matter of efficiency. “We can’t simply afford multiple UAS program offices in the Defense Department,” he says. Not only is the Pentagon paying multiple times for the same technology but it also is funding separate logistics, training and maintenance operations, Deptula says. “It makes sense to build standardization early in the procurement phase … so we don’t duplicate effort.”
Also aggravating to the Air Force is that the Army is spending money on Predator-like aircraft that the Air Force regards as old technology. The larger and more payload-capable Reaper is what the Defense Department should be buying, say Air Force officials.
The service is shifting all its UAV dollars to Reapers. Compared to the Predator, the Reaper carries 600 percent more payload, and flies at twice the speed, Deptula says. The payload capacity is not just important to carry weapons but also to be able to deploy a new “wide area airborne surveillance” sensor pod. The WAAS will deliver — with the same number of aircraft — up to 60 times more video than the sensors currently on Predator. The WAAS has been dubbed Gorgon Stare, after the mythological creature whose gaze turns people to stone.
The topic du jour is how to provide more intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance to ground forces, Deptula says. Today that means conducting more air patrols. Currently the Air Force has enough UAVs to execute 39 air patrols, and expects to reach 50 by 2011. But the way to really augment ISR is by equipping aircraft with more capable sensors, says Deptula.
“What folks on the ground want is motion video,” says Deptula. The plan is to deploy four WAAS pods on Predators in April 2010. That is going to allow a single aircraft to stare not just at one spot but 12 separate spots. A more sophisticated version scheduled for 2011 will deliver 30 video images simultaneously. An even more advanced model that could be available in 2012 will provide 65 images.
“That’s why the Air Force stopped building MQ1 Predators and is buying MQ9 Reapers, because they can carry this system,” says Deptula. “If you only have one video spot per UAS, even with 50 combat air patrols, you only have 50 images. With this new system you can have 3,000 images.”