Smashing the UAV Stovepipe

Feb. 1, 2006

Early last year, the Air Force proposed that it become the Pentagon’s executive agent for unmanned aerial vehicles. The move would have given USAF officials substantial influence over the development, planning, funding, and operational concepts of unmanned aircraft, DOD-wide.

The Joint Staff unceremoniously rejected the idea. Instead, it chose to hand off the coordination job to an all-service Joint UAS Center of Excellence at Creech AFB, Nev. (formerly Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field). The Air Force already had launched such a center in Nevada. It didn’t matter; the Pentagon decided to take it over. It put an Army general in charge.

So, over a period of just a few months, the Air Force saw its hopes for leading the UAV effort dashed and its UAV center of excellence taken over. The developments raised a question: Will the new arrangement be sufficient to meet the military’s—and the Air Force’s—burgeoning needs in this area

Numerous interviews with those involved in the effort lead to this consensus answer: Yes, the arrangement should work. Air Force and DOD leaders believe that all-service coordination is essential for successful development of unmanned systems. To maximize the power and contribution of unmanned aircraft there must be a harmony of operational plans, acquisition strategies, and procedures. That has been notably absent as individual services pursued their own programs, largely in isolation.

“With Open Arms”

In March, when the Air Force launched its center of excellence, the operation was positioned under the USAF Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nev. At the time, the Air Force was trying to drum up support and participation from the other services.

“I don’t care who gets [missions] done as long as the job gets done,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Goldfein, the Air Force Warfare Center commander, in March. “It would be immensely exciting to have the other services join in,” he added.

Goldfein told Air Force Magazine in November that the new joint center should meet all of the Air Force’s needs, “and then some.”

Col. Terry New, warfare center vice commander, said unmanned aircraft operating procedures and development had gotten somewhat out of control, and he was welcoming the new joint center “with open arms.”

The joint center is headed by Army Brig. Gen. Walter L. Davis, with Air Force Col. Larry L. Felder serving as the deputy commander. It became operational on Oct. 1. Driven by experience in Iraq—where vast numbers of UAVs are buzzing thick in the air—the first order of business was to create a joint concept of operations for UAV employment, said Davis. The center has a very broad charter to look at everything from tiny tactical UAVs to the high-altitude Global Hawk aircraft.

The center will grow from the cadre of 11 that existed in November to a team of 64 within a couple of years. Felder, for example, currently serves as deputy commander of the joint center as well as commander of the Air Force’s UAV Battlelab, also located at Creech and just a few blocks away. Eventually, Felder said, the Air Force will name another colonel to serve as the deputy for the joint center.

The joint center was created—at least in part—because the military services employ unmanned aircraft differently. Some feared that giving the Air Force executive agency would lead to a lack of attention to Army, Navy, and Marine Corps needs.

The Army is a major player in unmanned aircraft operations. Because of the battlefield demands in Iraq, the Army in 2005 for the first time flew more unmanned aircraft flying hours than the Air Force did. The Army and Air Force also typically fly their aircraft in different ways.

Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of DOD’s UAS planning task force at the Pentagon, said in an interview that the Army flies its unmanned aircraft at higher altitudes and prioritizes direct tactical support to the warfighter.

Under these circumstances, giving the Air Force executive agency over UAS development and priorities would “fly in the face” of operational experiences, he said. The Army is not expected to use its unmanned aircraft the way the Air Force does.

While the systems are being flown effectively in Iraq, coordination is still needed because the various UAV operators have inherited systems and tactics that were “invented on the fly,” said Goldfein.

The Predator system, for example, began life as a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency advanced concept technology demonstration. Remarkably, the MQ-1 just reached operational status in 2005. But the Predator went into use, as an ACTD, early and often and has been continuously enhanced through improved sensors and the addition of Hellfire missiles for strike missions.

Iraqi Stovepipe

The other services independently pursued their own unmanned aircraft plans, and the “stovepipes” have all come together in the crowded airspace over Iraq. Joint concepts of operation are still lacking, as plans were individually developed for each service-bred system.

Several incidents in which unmanned aircraft collided with the manned variety have highlighted the coordination problems.

Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, chief of Central Command Air Forces, recently told reporters that there are 1,000 unmanned aircraft operating in CENTCOM’s area, most of them flying below 3,000 feet.

The concern is that “the day will come where we will have a C-130 full of troops, and a … Scan Eagle, a Shadow, a Pioneer—whatever—is going to come through the cockpit and take out [that] C-130 because we did not deconflict” the airspace, Buchanan said. “Folks have got to play by those rules, and I will tell you not everybody that’s flying UAVs in the AOR is a rated pilot” who understands deconfliction, Buchanan said.

Unmanned vehicle operators are not the only ones needing joint operating concepts. A collision between a Raven unmanned aircraft and a Kiowa Warrior helicopter serves as a case in point.

That incident, Weatherington said, was the helicopter pilot’s fault because “the manned aircraft was not where he was supposed to be, … not procedurally where he should have been.”

The joint UAS center is trying to solve the airspace issue. Longer term, the center is looking to develop and improve standards, to create “efficiencies of effort,” said Davis. “Everybody is trying to do the same things,” such as finding bandwidth and managing airspace. The office should be able to share knowledge of how others are solving similar problems.

With joint CONOPS, the goal is for commanders to know what manned and unmanned assets are available, what the strengths and limitations of each are, and which systems are where in the sky at any given time. The UAS center will attempt to ensure commanders know which systems should be used for what situations.

Some argue that the Shadow, Hunter, and Predator unmanned aircraft have “very similar capability,” said Weatherington. All carry electro-optical and infrared sensors and can relay live video. There are significant differences, however.

The larger Air Force Predator has longer duration and is based at permanent airfields, meaning it can take longer to arrive on station than a Hunter or Shadow if there are no aircraft already in the air near a target location.

Roadmap to Where

Weatherington added that, as the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the new joint offices encourage services to look for more common solutions, the number of unique unmanned aircraft systems may decline.

OSD completed a new UAS Roadmap in August, after plans for the joint UAS center were announced. The roadmap is guidance to the services to push into specific areas and avoid redundancy. (See “Will We Have an Unmanned Armada?” November 2005, p. 54.) The roadmap’s goals were explicitly endorsed by Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, DOD intelligence director Stephen A. Cambone, and other top officials.

Unmanned aircraft also need to coordinate effects. If a jammer is added to an unmanned aircraft, it may meet one service’s requirements very well but have “significant detrimental effects to somebody else—because [jamming] hadn’t been coordinated,” observed Weatherington.

This “electronic fratricide” was also a concern to Buchanan. Citing a related problem, he noted that the jammers used in Iraq to defeat remotely triggered improvised explosive devices (IEDs) also disrupt the radios of the troops they are protecting.

The UAS Roadmap notes that unmanned aircraft links lost because of interference are “more often from friendly than hostile sources.”

The joint UAS center is handling coordination and “nonmateriel” solutions to unmanned aircraft issues. The Joint Staff created another organization to guide acquisition. A Joint UAS Materiel Review Board, still in its formative stages, will promote common systems, components, and development recommendations to the Joint Staff. The center and the review board have “complementary but slightly different focuses,” said Weatherington.

“The goal ought to be to find the best way to do the mission,” and not to protect existing programs, he said. This means all the services need to move forward and find “the best possible solutions” to meeting current and future requirements.

The Air Force and DOD are still scrambling to catch up to the surging demand for unmanned capabilities. The warfare center’s New noted that the Air Force only has enough Predators to meet about 30 percent of CENTCOM’s thirst for its capability and that the MQ-1 is the command’s “No. 1 in-demand system.”

Over the past decade, DOD has invested more than $3 billion in UAS development, procurement, and operations; that figure is likely to be more than $4 billion over the next decade.

Weatherington said, “If you go out and ask CENTCOM, ‘If you had one thing more, … what would it be?’?” unmanned aircraft would be high on the list.

Despite all the changes around it, the Air Force’s UAV Battlelab remains focused on its traditional mission of developing quick solutions to combat requirements. Felder said the battlelab is “heavily involved” in war on terrorism needs, either by figuring out solutions to demonstrated needs or by seeing new technology and applying it to existing problems.

Convoy Escort

Convoy support is a major current initiative. Felder said the battlelab has demonstrated a possible solution to the twin problems of force protection and of IEDs blowing up convoys.

Flying over a convoy route, an acoustic tracking system called “shot spotter,” linked to a Scan Eagle air vehicle, is able to track the sound of a shot back to the shooter and provide automatic target cueing. Meanwhile, a video imagery system provides route reconnaissance and can spot IEDs.

All this real-time video information can be relayed directly to security forces or a convoy commander. The battlelab is working to transition this capability to the field this spring.

The battlelab also is looking to solve the vexing problem of midair collisions. This has proved more difficult. “Sense-and-avoid” technology was recently deemed too immature for fielding, but Felder said officials will continue to look for inexpensive sense-and-avoid capabilities that could be added to Global Hawk or Predator.

The key for the battlelab is to address serious combat concerns, because transitioning the solutions into the acquisition system is always “the toughest nut to crack,” Felder said. “If you don’t transition, you’re nothing but a hobby shop.”

The UAV Battlelab has completed 32 initiatives since 1998; 13 of them have transitioned to the warfighter and 10 others have merged into other projects.

Fortunately, said Felder, “if you solve their problem, the money tends to appear.”

The services have warmed to unmanned systems, Weatherington said. The Army has learned what the Air Force figured out several years ago—that unmanned aircraft perform well, with low financial cost and low risk. That is why OSD is pushing for them to take on the most difficult missions currently performed by manned aircraft, such as suppression of enemy air defenses.

“We need to focus on the highest risk missions that unmanned aircraft can make a contribution to,” said Weatherington. “I would argue that SEAD and strike are exactly those missions. If DARPA hadn’t pushed the envelope,” by developing unmanned intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capabilities 10 years ago, “we’d never be doing ISR with unmanned aircraft today.”

Unmanned aircraft are eminently sensible for the highest-risk missions where DOD is “very likely to incur losses of aircraft and crews,” said Weatherington.

Now You Know

For decades, certain kinds of remotely piloted aircraft have been called “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs. Well, that is now officially old-think. The Defense Department has begun encouraging use of a new term, “Unmanned Aircraft System,” or UAS, to denote those systems formerly known as UAVs. You may well ask, Why?

The Pentagon reasons that most mentions of a UAV were actually references to an entire system, comprising not only a flying aircraft but also ground control stations, satellite links, communications, and so forth. Hence the new, officially approved term, “UAS.” The purging of incorrect thought doesn’t stop there. It’s no longer proper even to refer to the actual aircraft as a UAV. When referring solely to a Predator, Global Hawk, or Scan Eagle aircraft, the Pentagon wants you to say, “unmanned aircraft,” or UA.

Please note that the Air Force has not yet fully embraced this concept. The service still maintains what it calls the UAV Battlelab at Creech AFB, Nev. Still, the politically preferred terminology encroaches; located nearby is DOD’s Joint UAS Center of Excellence.

For the Air Force, Tests Ahead on the UAV Front

Air Force Predator and Global Hawk UAVs have been used for so long that one can forget that they are fledgling systems. At some point, USAF will have to take some steps demonstrating that UAVs are here to stay.

Take, for example, the situation with combat Predators. These systems are operated by airmen at the Air Force’s Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nev. Yet the center is really in a different line of work. Most of the time, it certifies equipment for combat; evaluates tactics, techniques, and procedures; offers advanced training through the Air Force Weapons School and Red Flag exercises; runs two battlelabs; and operates the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.

In short, combat operations don’t seem to fit. The Predators, flown by the 57th Wing at Nellis and nearby Creech Air Force Base, are there as a holdover from their days as a technology demonstration item.

Col. Terry New, USAF warfare center vice commander, noted that the MQ-1 Predator achieved initial operational capability only last year and, at some point, will probably move out from under control of the warfare center.

For the time being, the ability of Predator crews to train and operate together makes sense, said Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Goldfein, USAFWC commander. Creech and Nellis have “lots of room” on their ramps, and pilots have immediate access to training ranges, he said.

Eventually, however, the Air Force will want to have Predator operated like other combat systems, probably in a combat wing belonging to a numbered air force. Goldfein said it may be a few years before such a move occurs, and it is unknown whether the aircraft would stay at Nellis or move elsewhere. Plans already call for 15 Predator squadrons and at least 137 MQ-1 and larger MQ-9 aircraft.

The Air Force may also want to legitimize unmanned aircraft by giving them dedicated airmen. The service does not grow UAV operators the way it develops manned aircraft pilots from the time they are second lieutenants. Predator pilots are pulled from A-10, F-15, and KC-135 cockpits and placed in trailer-like ground control stations—a fact that may breed resentment among pilots used to more glamorous missions.

Given the central role that unmanned aircraft play in modern combat, “careful review of the current career field structure probably seems appropriate,” said Dyke Weatherington, deputy director of DOD’s UAS planning task force.

Some unmanned aircraft, like Predator, are remotely piloted, carry Hellfire missiles, and can kill. Others, like Global Hawk, generally operate autonomously and do not fire weapons. Goldfein said it is “certainly possible” to train UAV operators from Day 1, but this is a complex issue that will probably evolve in phases.

The Air Force already has navigators with commercial-pilot licenses trained as Predator operators, and over time dedicated “systems operators” may develop for other unmanned aircraft, Goldfein said.