Budget Cuts Reignite Army, Air Force UAV Turf Battle

By Valerie Insinna
Dwindling funding may be bringing back a turf battle over which military service should control medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles.
The final years of the previous decade saw an inter-service fight, largely driven by senior Air Force officers, who argued that the Army should relinquish control of the its growing fleet of large UAVs. The Army prevailed, arguing that it needed to control this increasingly important capability within its own ranks.
The debate is apparently on again. But this time it is being driven by a budget- conscious Congress.
Col. Pat Tierney, director of the Army's aviation directorate, took a good chunk of his 15-minute speech at the Army Aviation Association of American unmanned aircraft systems conference in Arlington, Va. on Dec. 11 to defend the service's need to fly its own aircraft. There are no duplicative efforts, he insisted.
He made many of the same points his predecessors were forced to make more than three years ago. The Air Force is flying its Reapers and Predators on "strategic" missions and must share its aircraft across all four services. The Army needs its Gray Eagles and other large UAVs for tactical missions.
"The Air Force would come to us and say 'we can probably cover most of those missions with what we've got. There is duplicity there.' I am telling you that is just not true," Tierney said.
The Army has moved away from using UAVs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as the Air Force still does. It is using them for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, he said. The target acquisition mission must remain in the Army at the division level, he said. If a target is in sight, officers can't wait hours for an Air Force Reaper, which may already be tasked on another mission, to show up.
"There are certain things we have got to be able to do for ourselves," he said.
When asked why he felt the need to bring up the arguments of yesteryear, Tierney acknowledged that the Army is still feeling the pressure to hand over its UAV missions to the Air Force. The office of the secretary of defense understands that the Army needs its own UAVs, he said. Lawmakers don't fully understand this, he said. There are efforts "to limit us," he added.
"We have got to go back up to the Hill and explain what it is we do with this system," he added. UAVs have the potential to sharply decrease the amount of time needed to fly more expensive helicopters, but no one on Capitol Hill understands those potential cost-saving benefits, he said.
A junior officer who serves with Tierney later told National Defense that the turf battle was settled years ago and that senior Pentagon leaders understand that the Army needs its unmanned aircraft for tactical missions. The service is also expeditionary, and can deploy them in theater more quickly than the Air Force. The renewed debate is coming from Capitol Hill, not the Air Force, he said.
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Robotics

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