Air Force’s Relationship With Unmanned Aviation Hits Plateau

By Sandra I. Erwin
Air Force Gen. Mike Hostage was flying in circles over an Afghan village aboard a turboprop spy aircraft. The four-man crew spent seemingly endless hours trying to spot a sport-utility vehicle that transported a suspected insurgent. 

The ground commander had directed an Army helicopter to be ready to strafe the SUV with its 20mm cannon. But on closer inspection, the aircrew realized that the insurgent had hidden under bushes and the helicopter was about to hit the wrong target, and most likely kill or injure innocent civilians. Hostage’s team immediately alerted the helicopter to hold fire.

Only a human observer could have noticed that, said Hostage, who runs the Air Combat Command. “A Predator would have had no idea,” he said, referring to the Air Force’s aerial spy of choice during the past decade of counterinsurgency warfare.

The vignette, said Hostage, illustrates the dangers of becoming so enamored of a particular technology that one forgets its limitations.

Remotely-piloted aircraft are the darlings of 21st century warfare. Drone fleets are expanding across the U.S. military, the CIA and the armed forces of many foreign countries.

Air Force leaders, meanwhile, appear to be questioning the service’s devotion to unmanned aviation at a time when budgets are tightening and the Pentagon is seeking to “rebalance” its resources from ground conflicts to naval and air warfare.

Hostage is one among a cadre of Air Force officers who are championing a new thinking in how the service acquires its future weapon systems. It’s not about “manned vs. unmanned,” said Hostage. The issue is how the Air Force will equip itself to dominate the airspace in future conflicts. The current fleet of UAVs will not cut it in a war against foes that are armed with advanced radar and surface-to-air missiles. “We’re shifting to a battlefield where there is an adversary who is going to have a vote in whether I have that ‘staring eye’ over the battlefield 24/7,” he said. The UAV fleet that the Air Force has built and “is still being prodded to build up is not relevant in that new theater.”

The hype about drones being the new wave of warfare obscures the fact that they are vehicles that drop weapons and spy from above, but can’t make decisions, he said. “I can build a platform and give it autonomous capability, tell it to go somewhere and kill anything that moves. But we are not morally comfortable to do that. We’re not able to make them smart enough to tell the difference between a [legitimate] target and civilians.”

Maj. Gen. Steven L. Kwast, the new director of the Air Force Quadrennial Defense Review office who recently served as director of requirements at Air Combat Command, has said the Pentagon’s weapons portfolio is “off balance” and possibly inadequate for future wars against well-armed enemies.

As this debate heats up within the Air Force, UAV advocates point to the budget as proof that the service already is gutting its unmanned fleet. None of the service’s top procurement programs — a new aerial refueling tanker, the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter and a next-generation long-range bomber — are unmanned systems. In a recent article published in Armed Forces Journal, Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta, a Predator instructor; and M.L. Cummings, a senior engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s humans and automation lab, chastised the Air Force for putting the UAV fleet on the road to irrelevance. They accuse senior leaders of seeking to “revert to the Cold War-era focus on manned fighters and bombers.”

The authors argue that the Air Force already has eviscerated its unmanned fleet. It terminated the procurement of the Block 30 Global Hawk and ended the MQ-X program to develop an advanced unmanned combat aircraft. It also halved its planned acquisition of Reapers from 48 to 24 per year. The final insult to unmanned aviation was the decision by the Air Force to begin the design of a new bomber and rule out the possibility that it could be pilot-less, Spinetta and Cummings contend, and it appears the Air Force “plans to invest in its past rather than the future.”

Air Force officials have defended the terminations of Global Hawk and MQ-X as necessary cost cutting in the face of shrinking budgets.

Hostage insists that the Air Force is not abandoning unmanned aviation. But there is a desire for a balanced mix of air-warfare weapons after a decade of grinding wars in support of ground troops.

Analysts and military strategists agree that, no matter what the Air Force does next, drones will continue to play significant roles in air operations, especially in overhead surveillance and attacks on militants far from the reach of manned aircraft. Commanders especially like that UAVs, unlike pilots, never get tired.

But as the Air Force begins to plan, for the first time, for a post-9/11 future, the idea that most of its war-fighting prowess would be to fly drones by remote control understandably is making some generals uncomfortable.

Considering how aggressively the other branches of the military are embracing UAVs, it is conceivable that aerial surveillance in the future might be best accomplished by the Army or the Navy, rather than by the Air Force. If this scenario is at least being contemplated, it would explain why the Air Force might want to take a step back and ponder what special skills it should bring to the table. With budget cuts looming, the pressure is on the Air Force to not gamble on the wrong horse.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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