A Better UAV Flight Plan

April 1, 2007

The Air Force may be the official keeper of airpower, but aviation is respected by all of the armed services. The Navy defines itself in terms of carriers. The Marine Corps has fighters. The Army flies attack helicopters. All have support fleets.

USAF seeks no monopoly, having long ago accepted that the other services need organic air assets to carry out their assigned combat missions.

At times, though, USAF has had to push back. Federal law (Title 10, US Code) specifies that the Air Force—and it only—shall be “organized, trained, and equipped” for “prompt and sustained offensive and defensive air operations.” Now, USAF faces a push-back moment, with its top officer leading the charge.

At issue are unmanned aerial vehicles, the robotic aircraft which have played starring roles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

UAVs have demonstrated great intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) power—tracking insurgents, foiling roadside bombs, and flying route reconnaissance. Each service has deployed hundreds as a cheap way of expanding battlespace awareness.

This sudden, unplanned, and chaotic rise of the UAV has sparked discord between the Air Force, on one hand, and Army, Navy, and Marine Corps on the other. The basic question: Which service, if any, should control UAV policy and guide UAV operations

To that question, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF Chief of Staff, has a blunt answer: The Air Force should be in charge. It is, the Chief maintains, the service “organized, trained and equipped” to conduct joint warfare “from the air.”

Moseley made his pitch in a March 5 memo to Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and combatant commanders. He called for making USAF the executive agent for medium- and high-altitude UAVs, defined as higher than 3,500 feet above ground level. The move would allow USAF to shape requirements and guide development.

It was a bold step, but one the Air Force had to take because of two critical problems with the developing UAV situation.

First, other services keep their UAVs “tethered” to their individual units. UAVs in direct support of land or naval forces are controlled by local commanders. This limits distribution of ISR data and restricts highest and best use of each UAV. It leads to skies crowded with up to 1,000 UAVs, creating hazards. Airmen believe air assets are best controlled by a centralized air commander, as is the case with USAF’s Predator and Global Hawk UAVs.

Second, the decentralized, unsynchronized approach to UAVs is inefficient, in both time and money. With so many institutions at work, there is inevitable duplication of effort and unfocused development of air and associated ground equipment, uplinks, and downlinks, often with no compatibility. Under this Lone Ranger approach, there are no standards for logistics, training, or ground stations. Operators using the same frequencies jam each other. Imposing discipline on air systems is supposed to be the Air Force’s job.

With USAF as executive agent, said Moseley, the US would gain many benefits, from better distribution of intelligence to lower costs, from more participation of allies to a better grip on “ballooning” UAV bandwidth use.

In truth, no other service can match USAF’s credentials. It suffered a slow start in UAVs, but now has established itself as a leader. Moseley pointed out that the Air Force has “max surged” all available UAVs forward to the Mideast. It has come up with innovative ways to share data from its sensors.

This year’s Air Force budget earmarked $2.3 billion to hasten acquisition of Predators. USAF’s 2008-13 budget plan seeks $13 billion to buy 241 UAVs for 12 new Predator squadrons.

Clearly, more than the future of UAVs is on the line. Also at stake is the fate of USAF’s push to become the prime organization for operational ISR within the joint community, as it is for air combat and air mobility.

Already, most ISR data comes from USAF space satellites and manned aircraft such as the U-2, E-8 Joint STARS, E-3 AWACS, and RC-135 Rivet Joint, as well as Global Hawks and Predators. A growing UAV fleet would deepen and extend this capability. In his memo, Moseley said he planned to present a “comprehensive” plan to improve ISR capabilities.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, deputy chief of staff for ISR, recently laid out a multifaceted blueprint for overhauling the service’s ISR functions with operations in mind.

Moseley argues, “A joint theater ISR strategy, with the [top theater airman] controlling all medium- and high-altitude theater ISR assets, will better meet the ISR needs of the joint force commander.”

This is the Air Force’s second bite at the UAV apple. Pentagon officials in 2005 turned down a similar USAF bid for executive agency, largely because of objections from other services.

This effort, too, is sure to draw fire—particularly from the Army. In the past, it has sought a free hand to operate UAVs up to 10,000 feet. Service plans call for spending billions of dollars for thousands of UAVs over the next decade.

“They’re out building their own air force,” charges one bemused Air Force officer. “They’re planning to buy more medium-altitude UAVs than the United States Air Force is buying.”

No one wants to deny ground or naval forces the power to see threats or targets in the battlespace. The real goal is to get the most out of each UAV for the joint force. That’s not happening today.

We think that Moseley has come up with an excellent way to improve the system. We further think that, if the Pentagon takes an honest look at things, it will come to the same conclusion. After all, UAVs are aircraft. Why not get guidance from the world’s foremost practitioner of airpower