As Budgets Tighten, Army Unmanned Aviation Will Have to Contain Ambition

By Eric Beidel
The Army's unmanned aviation programs have thrived in recent years. But as budgets get tighter, officials may soon be asked to shorten their dream wish lists.
Col. Randolph “Randy” R. Rotte, chief of the Army aviation division at the Pentagon, of late has to play the role of a kill-joy "wife" when it comes to UAS requests. “They want the 50-inch plasma. I tell them, ‘I’m sorry, honey, we can only afford the 32-inch. Or maybe we can get the 50-inch plasma if we don’t do Starbucks for a few months and we postpone buying a new car for a year,’” Rotte said Dec. 14 at the Army Aviation Association of America's annual symposium outside Washington, D.C.
There is a skyrocketing demand for unmanned air systems in theater, where the Army currently has more than 320 unpiloted aircraft. But keeping up with growing needs and supporting the current fleet of drones is becoming an increasingly delicate balancing act, Rotte said.
Officials must weigh requests for small UAS like the Raven against the demand for larger drones like Gray Eagle. The Army must also determine how to be apportion funding for devices used to gather intelligence and systems used to disseminate it, Rotte said.
It is leading the Army to consider giving even greater preference to deployed units so that "they have more systems, more sensors, more air vehicles than those who are home stationed in training,” Rotte explained. Maybe those being trained in the United States could do with less, he suggested. Again, it is a tough balancing act, he added. The Army is still grappling with how to go about doing this.
“I wish I could tell you with clarity and accuracy where we are going to go in the future, but I can’t,” said Ellis Golson, director of the capability, development and integration directorate at Fort Rucker, Ala. “I don’t know what the resourcing is going to be, I don’t know what the personnel allocations are going to be, all of which is in a state of flux.”
The Army is currently reviewing all of its UAS capabilities. “It’s no secret that resources are getting tight,” said Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, a legislative liaison for the Army. “We’re taking a hard look at every single system,” he said. The Army poured $1.2 billion into UAS programs in fiscal 2010. The service requested another $1.3 billion for 2011.
The Senate on Tuesday passed a one-year funding measure for the federal government that calls for a $10 billion cut to the defense budget. The House of Representatives has also proposed a reduction in defense spending for 2011, albeit a smaller one. It is still not clear if and how that will affect Army programs.
Kentucky's Republican Congressman Geoff Davis, a former Army aviator himself, told officials that they need to speak up of they want to avoid painful funding cuts. He urged service members to tell the human stories of war to overcome what he called a “breakdown” in the defense authorization process.
“There is a perception that has developed, partly courtesy of Desert Storm and partly because of [Defense Department] public relations .... that wars are being fought with computers and technology with little to no risk for the soldiers involved,” Davis said. “Most people have no clue what it is that you do. And it’s very important in this current Congress with so many new members to communicate.”
Army officials need to discuss with citizens and the media “the human factor” of their missions, Davis said. The congressman said that he has seen many programs saved and authorized thanks to officers explaining the nitty-gritty of the tools they have or need.

Topics: Aviation, C4ISR, Intelligence, Sensors, Defense Department, DOD Budget, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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