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Midair collision: a never-ending feud over roles and missions.

At the heart of the latest Air Force-Army spat over who should control surveillance drones is a debate that began six decades ago: Should the Army only fly helicopters and leave fixed-wing airplanes to its brothers in blue?

The feud over unmanned aircraft escalated in recent months, as Air Force officials actively campaigned for the service to become "executive agent" for medium- and high-altitude systems. They contend that the airspace has become too crowded, that sorties are not properly coordinated, and that the Air Force is better equipped to oversee the operation of all services' fixed-wing UAVs flying above 3,500 feet.

But what seems to bother the Air Force even more is to see the Army yet again kicking down the wall that separates service "roles and missions." Causing the most angst is the Army's determination to begin a multibillion-dollar procurement of fixed-wing unmanned aircraft that mirror many of the technologies that the Air Force already is buying.

Further, the Army's UAV would effectively make the service an operator of fixed-wing air-to-ground attack aircraft--a role that the Air Force views as its own. A further irritant is that the Army's aircraft would be loaded with at least twice as many Hellfire missiles as the Air Force's Predator.

"It's a very emotional issue," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan, a former commander of air operations in the Middle East.

While overseeing air combat operations over Iraq, Buchanan saw first hand the complications created by having multiple services flying UAVs.

As UAVs get larger, the problems will get worse, Buchanan said. "One day, a C-130 cargo plane will have a mid-air collision with a UAV flying from the ground," he added. The air operations commander--not the Army's division commander--needs to control where UAVs fly, said Buchanan. "Back here in D.C., it has unfortunately become a turf issue. In the theater, the joint commander's problem is that when each service brings UAVs, they show up with unique launch and recover systems, maintenance equipment and crews."

What appears to have particularly annoyed the Air Force is the Army's decision to start buying a Predator-like aircraft called the Sky Warrior. The Sky Warrior has many similarities with the Air Force's newest and larger version of the Predator, which is dubbed the Reaper. Officials front both services last year spent months trying to negotiate a joint procurement that would have combined the Sky Warrior and the Reaper under a single program. They have yet to reach a compromise, and each service so far is pursuing separate acquisitions.

It is easy to see why both services need that aircraft, Buchanan said. In Iraq, predominantly, "there is an insatiable desire for Predator capabilities." Ground commanders especially like to control access to the video images that allow them to keep track of insurgents' moves, for example. Navy Vice Adm. Eric Olson, vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, described the aerial surveillance that UAVs provide as an "extension" of the ground force. That characterization was later disputed by Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. "UAV capability is not an extension of the ground force; it is an extension of the joint force," Deptula said in a statement.

The Air Force clearly is bothered by the Army operating an airplane that has the capability to range the entire battlefield, and limiting its use to one brigade, Buchanan said. "I watched that happen when they tried to do that." It is regrettable that the question of who flies helicopters and who flies fixed wing keeps rearing its ugly head, he added. "I've heard some callous comments from Army officials saying they should reverse the 1947 decision to create an Air Force separate from the Army."

In the Army's defense, commanders often assume that they need to own the UAVs to make sure they're there, said Buchanan. "They plan their missions based on having those assets." Air Force UAVs are considered "general support" assets that might be available but not guaranteed. That thinking still prevails in the Army although it is fundamentally outdated, he said. "It shows a lack of understanding of joint capabilities and trust."

The Air Force currently has "no visibility into how Army deploys UAVs," Deptula said in an interview.

He vigorously challenged the Army's decision to buy the Sky Warrior UAVs. "The Army is saying they'd like to buy Predators and assign them to each division. That division will use them as they see fit," Deptula said. "We don't think that is the best joint approach."

At a hearing of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee earlier this year, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Peter Domenici, R-N.M., asked then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker to explain why the service was ostensibly duplicating the Air Force's Predator capabilities. "I don't understand why we would have two services working on nearly identical programs for UAVs," Dorgan said.

Schoomaker argued that while the Sky Warrior and the Predator have close similarities, the Army employs UAVs in ways that do not mirror how the Air Force employs the Predator.

But lawmakers for the most part would be reluctant to upend the Army's UAV procurement plans at a time when commanders in the field are clamoring for more Predators.

At another hearing recently, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., denounced the current shortage of Predators. "Predators are perhaps our single most important detection tool in the war against al-Qaida and in Iraq, yet only a fraction of the Predators needed by the military and our intelligence collectors are available for deployment," said Bayh.

Olson, the vice chief of Special Operations Command, said that U.S. Central Command needs 30 orbits--an orbit is a set of four aircraft that fly overhead 24/7--but currently only has 12.

Predator flying hours have skyrocketed from 10,000 in 1991 to 75,000 this year, and today they fly 12 air patrols per day, said Col. Christopher R. Chambliss, the commander of the 432nd Wing--a former F-16 fighter wing that was deactivated in 1994 and recently brought back to service to only fly Predators and Reapers.

The Air Force said it has committed $2.3 billion during the next five years to buy 21 Predator orbits.

One Air Force official speaking off the record blamed the Army's Sky Warrior for the delays in acquiring more Predator aircraft from manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, in San Diego.

Thomas J. Cassidy, Jr., president of General Atomics, said the assembly line has plenty of production capacity to accommodate the Army's Sky Warrior orders plus additional Predator and Reaper orders, if the Air Force chose to buy more aircraft.

The Army and the Air Force need not compete for production capacity, Cassidy said in an interview. "We are only delivering 2.5 Predators A aircraft to the Air Force per month. We have capacity for four."

The company builds 10 to 12 Predators a month for military and homeland security agencies. "We recently bought a 400,000 square foot building to expand our capacity," said Cassidy.

The Army currently is buying the Sky Warrior A, which is almost an exact copy of the Predator A. Soon, it will begin acquiring the Sky Warrior--a bigger aircraft that has the same avionics as the Air Force's Reaper (previously known as the Predator B).

General Atomics has sold 250 Predators, of which 165 were purchased by the Air Force. That includes 11 of the Reaper variant. The Air Force said its goal is to acquire 60 Reapers. The Reaper is a legitimate attack aircraft. It can launch many of the same weapons that pilots drop from fighter jets and bombers--including 500-pound laser-guided bombs, 500-pound GPS guided bombs, and the Air Force's new 250-pound small diameter bomb.

The Army has acquired at least 20 Sky Warrior A aircraft. It has signed a contract for 17 Sky Warriors, but is expected to buy as many as 350, Cassidy said.

A notable feature of the Sky Warrior is that it carries four Hellfire missiles, while the Predator only has two. A General Atomics spokesperson declined to provide pricing information for the Sky Warrior. The company offered that the Predator A costs $4 million and the Predator B comes in at $9 million. But it would not confirm a Government Accountability Office estimate of a $16 million price tag for the Sky Warrior.

The Army originally called its aircraft Warrior, but that name got caught up in a trademark dispute between General Atomics and Piper Aircraft, which claims to own the name Warrior. For that reason, Warrior was relabeled the Sky Warrior.

The current bad blood between the services is not surprising, said David E. Johnson, a military expert at the Rand Corp. "The debate between the Army and the Air Force over the relative roles of ground and air power is one that has, with varying degrees of stridency, been ongoing since 1918," Johnson wrote in a recent study published by Rand.

Most recently, the services engaged in a roles-and-missions squabble over the "joint cargo aircraft," which both the Army and the Air Force intend to fly. In Afghanistan, they argued over whether ground-based artillery should take precedence over airborne "deep strike" weapons.

The Defense Department to some extent has created the conditions for these inter-service turf battles because it has failed to do an objective analysis of "joint requirements," Johnson said in an interview. "The Air Force cannot make a determination of what it needs absent knowing what the joint force needs," he said. "The joint force has competing visions of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps ... Everyone has grabbed on to the UAV technology."

In the absence of credible joint analysis, said Johnson, "We're creating redundant capabilities that cannot be managed at the joint level." An entire bureaucracy was created under the Joint Chiefs of Staff to oversee these issues, but it doesn't seem to be working, Johnson added. "Do they rationalize the requirements or do they just give the nod to service programs?"

As things stand now, however, "If you had to choose one of the four services for UAV operations and surveillance, I can't imagine it not being the Air Force."

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Title Annotation:ANALYSIS
Comment:Midair collision: a never-ending feud over roles and missions.(ANALYSIS)
Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Publication:National Defense
Date:Jun 1, 2007
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