The Struggle Over UAVs

Nov. 1, 2007

The Air Force’s drive to organize the use of unmanned air vehicles among the armed services, twice denied by Pentagon leaders, is not over, but the compelling problems that caused the push in the first place are now receiving the attention needed, USAF leaders said in September.

They also drove home the point that UAVs, once considered a novelty, have now become of central importance across the active and reserve components, which are organizing and building policy and operations around these pilotless aircraft.

Addressing AFA’s Air & Space Conference in Washington, D.C., held in September, top USAF officials said they’re satisfied—for now—with Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England’s recent decision not to make the service the Pentagon’s executive agent for UAVs (See “Washington Watch: UAV Executive Agency—Denied,” p. 13). They said England’s approach could, in fact, pave the way for eventual executive agency for the Air Force, by directing interservice cooperation that USAF alone might have had a hard time enforcing.

“I think this moves us in that direction,” Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne told reporters at a press conference. England’s directives that the services work toward pulling their diverse UAV efforts together “actually would have been harder” to accomplish if USAF had been made executive agent at this point.

“To … promulgate such a standard, it’s easier if you are in the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” Wynne said.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, Chief of Staff, told reporters that “I’m not unhappy” with England’s decisions. He added, however, that “there is a series of steps to be taken, and we’re making progress.”

In a panel discussion with most of the Air Force’s four-star generals, plus the heads of the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, and Air Force Special Operations Command, Moseley elaborated that the UAV executive agency issue is a book with four more chapters to be written.

The first, he said at the conference’s Four-Star Forum, is to develop a pan-services concept of operations for the use of UAVs in a combat theater. Such a plan is being developed by the Air Staff in concert with Air Combat Command, and will soon be presented for joint consideration.

The second step is to get the services’ acts together with regard to acquisition of the craft themselves as well as standardizing ground stations, connectivity, networks, bandwidth, and other interoperability issues, Moseley said, to avoid the costly mistake of having systems that can’t communicate across service lines. He said it is an issue that has vexed him since his days as commander of Central Command Air Forces—as air boss of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003—and through his tenure as vice chief and Chief of Staff.

“That part is what we’ve addressed with OSD” through the pitch to be executive agent, Moseley explained.

The third aspect, he continued, is the issue of “airspace control, deconfliction, … how to operate manned and unmanned systems in the same airspace, to get maximum effect … from all users, but also maximum desired effect from the assets that are deployed.” The Air Force still insists that all UAVs be made “deployable” to answer the unquenchable demand for the intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance products they provide.

Lastly, Moseley said, is the thorny issue of air defense, an issue he said was discussed at length during the concurrent Global Air Chiefs Conference.

“The proliferation of [unmanned aerial] systems creates a little bit of a challenge which will grow to be a much bigger challenge,” Moseley said, since many UAVs are small, and may be indistinguishable from cruise missiles or other hostile systems, no matter how benign their mission.

ISR Unity Needed

Going forward, the first priority, Moseley said, will be to create the standardized tactics, techniques, and procedures which will flow from a joint-service CONOPS. He noted that Joint Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., will referee such an effort, and is located coincidentally near ACC headquarters at Langley AFB, Va., and Army Training and Doctrine Command, which will have to cooperate to build the new scheme. The CONOPS will not just be about UAVs, however, but will encompass ISR, and therefore will detail the relative roles and contributions of UAVs within that broader context.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, deputy chief of staff for ISR and who is heading up the ISR CONOPS effort for the Air Force, also spoke at the conference, and said that “we need to bring some unity to all ISR pieces for the combatant commanders.” At the moment, the myriad pieces of ISR, for all the services, are “operating independently,” which defeats the desire for a unified strategy.

As getting a CONOPS is the Air Force’s highest UAV issues priority, the service’s requests in this regard “are being met,” Moseley said.

Still to be defined are joint requirements for unmanned air vehicles and the demand for full-motion video, which is the main product of most medium-altitude UAVs such as the Air Force’s Predator and the Army’s Sky Warrior, both built by General Atomics.

To underscore the demand for UAVs, Moseley noted that the MQ-1 Predators have been deployed from Nellis AFB, Nev., since 1996, “and we have never brought them back.” The aircraft have never participated in operational readiness inspections or Red Flag exercises or any normal activities to develop their full potential, because there have never been enough of them to be spared for such routine activities, he said.

Before executive agency is discussed again, Moseley said there’s “more work to be done” with regard to “demonstrating competency” and “defining requirements” among other things.

Gen. Ronald E. Keys, then commander of ACC, told fellow panel member Moseley, “I’m less happy than you are” about England’s directives on UAVs.

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council—a committee of all the service vice chiefs—had recommended that the Air Force be named UAV executive agent.

“Now we’re turning it over to another committee,” Keys said. “And a committee has often been described as a cul-de-sac, down which good ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.”

Keys said that one service should be put in charge of UAVs and held “accountable” for working out a coherent scheme for buying and using them.

“We’re in a ridiculous situation now,” Keys said, “where we’ve probably got a thousand UAVs downrange [with] various kinds of systems, and the control systems are not compatible, the data systems … are not compatible, and we need to bring order to that.”

He added that too many of the systems flying in combat are feeding information “to a single person” instead of broadcasting it over a network that all can see and use.

“We have got to move away from that kind of approach,” Keys asserted.

The Air Force has criticized the Army for wanting to tie UAVs directly to ground divisions, saying that when the divisions are not deployed, their UAVs will be idle—a situation unconscionable when the demand for UAV products is so high.

At a meeting with defense reporters in Washington shortly after the AFA conference, Army Secretary Pete Geren said the Air Force’s view “makes sense if we were fighting a conventional war, but doesn’t sit well on the kind of conflict we face today.” The unmanned aircraft need to be controlled close to the soldier in the field, he said, to answer the soldier’s immediate needs. The Army wants to give control to the soldier in the fight, he said.

However, Geren said he’s optimistic about the direction the issue is taking, saying he and his service Chief of Staff, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., have met with Moseley and Wynne and “I don’t think we’re as far apart as it appears” from some of the press coverage of the controversy.

Keys said that the Air Force and Army—both buying a variant of the Predator from General Atomics, which has limited production capability—“essentially are competing for production of the UAVs. That’s not good. I think we’re getting charged twice.”

Wynne, in the press conference, said that “we’re behind schedule on Predator. … We would like another 100, at least, of Predators, so we’re hoping we can get together [with the Army] and have an orderly approach to General Atomics … and come down with a general-purpose vehicle that meets both of our needs.” Moseley picked up the thread and added that the company has a limited amount of engineering, test, and production people, and that they need to be focused on a smaller number of airframes to keep production at adequate levels.

There is urgency in the issue, Keys said, noting that there is likely no one in charge at Central Command who knows the whereabouts of any given ground patrol, or where the next convoy is headed. It’s essential that UAVs fly ahead of these ground units, to provide them with vital intelligence about “the things that need to be seen, before they drive into an ambush.” An executive agent, he said, would ensure that “we connect all these things, … so we get the right information to the right guy at the right time.”

Partnering Around Global Hawk

Without pointing fingers at any other service, Keys observed that “we’ve all got good ideas, … but they’re just not compatible good ideas.”

Gen. Paul V. Hester, head of Pacific Air Forces, noted that high-flying Global Hawk unmanned ISR craft are a central element in a novel scheme of engagement with friendly countries in his theater of operations. Hester said that in 2009, the first of several Global Hawks will bed down on Guam, and PACAF is in discussions with a number of countries on jointly using the aircraft to meet common needs. Partner countries might provide sensor payloads for the aircraft or provide places where Global Hawk can land and refuel. The aircraft could monitor critical sea lines of communication, like the Strait of Malacca, through which much of the world’s oil supplies pass and which is plagued by piracy.

Partnering around the Global Hawk may be a way “to solve problems early, instead of waiting until later, when we have our guns drawn,” Hester observed.

In a press conference, Hester said that Singapore had asked that Global Hawk land at its big military-civilian airport, but the US declined because it felt the time was not right to bring the aircraft down through heavily trafficked international civil airspace.

The Global Hawk will largely replace the manned U-2, which is mainly conducting ISR flights over the Korean peninsula, he said. Hester would like to have Predator-type UAVs, for more “short range” operations to which the Global Hawk is not suited. For operations like the 2004 tsunami relief, Predators could be easily and rapidly deployed aboard C-17s, which have recently bedded down in Hawaii.

For the international partnering to work, though, Hester said, “you have to have an executive agent” to speak with a unified voice for US operators of UAVs.

Gen. William T. Hobbins, commander of US Air Forces in Europe, said there are “17 nations that are flying UAVs” in his theater, and that there are 157 types of the aircraft either flying or in development there.

Hobbins is the executive director of NATO’s Joint Airpower Competency Center, which he said has just published a UAV “flight plan,” describing “every type of system being used, the types of missions, the frequencies—all the deconfliction mechanisms we’d like industry, academia, and our nations to grab onto.”

He predicted an ever-greater usage of UAVs, as a less-expensive alternative to manned aircraft for endurance-type missions such as signals intelligence. He also sees a high correlation between the experience of developing and fielding of UAVs with their manned counterparts. The UAVs will “follow the same evolution that manned” aircraft did.

With a hint of envy mixed with pride, Hobbins said NATO has “a standardization bible” for UAVs “that they live by.” He feels confident NATO partners will “use the standards they developed … in … the collection, process, exploit, dissemination areas for imagery.”

Air Combat Command handed off a squadron of Predators to Air Force Special Operations Command earlier this year, and Lt. Gen. Michael W. Wooley, AFSOC commander, praised Moseley and Keys for making the assets available.

Wooley said that while finding the enemy was easy during the Cold War, finding the enemy today is like finding a “needle in a haystack of needles.” That’s why the full-motion video offered by UAVs “is so very, very important” and indispensable for the special ops mission.

The unmanned aircraft are “protecting the ground team, … able to surveil a location and give current intelligence to a team, as they go in.” The robot craft tell the special ops units which way the doors swing open, whether there’s anyone on top of a building, and whether a helicopter can land on it, Wooley explained. They also watch to see if anyone’s coming, and peek around the riverbed or “over the next ridge” looking for enemies.

“All of those things, the Predators are bringing to the fight,” Wooley said.

In addition, the UAVs are collaborating with gunships and making them more lethal and survivable. Gunships used to have to make several passes over a target area to be sure of a target and get the right firing solution, Wooley said, but the Predators pass information to the gunship en route.

This approach is “lowering [the gunship’s] vulnerability as it comes in for the first orbit, and more often than not, [it] can take a shot on the first orbit.”

Wooley said AFSOC is “very excited” about this synergy of gunships and UAVs.

He added that AFSOC’s Predator unit has been “in a constant surge” since it stood up. “That has us concerned, and there’s no letting up.” He said the more UAVs that can be provided to offer full-motion video, “the better off we’ll be.”

The Air National Guard is in the midst of a “transformation” to its 21st century form, and UAVs are a central element of that process, according to ANG Director Lt. Gen. Craig R. McKinley.

He noted that the Guard is transitioning from fighters, tankers, and lift aircraft to the UAV mission in many places, including “units in California and North Dakota, Arizona, Texas, soon into New York, and also Nevada.” McKinley said, “It’s a nice match, when you lose a platform like the F-16, to transition those pilots and those maintenance people—highly experienced people—into this new system.”

A New Way to Look

He also said the Guard will be looking to “partner with civilian universities and create centers of excellence so our citizen-airmen can bring those skill sets to this very challenging and rewarding mission.”

US Northern Command chief Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr. noted that UAVs are essential to the unfolding scheme of obtaining better situational awareness around and within the United States, and he pitched for a more rapid effort to overcome objections to operating UAVs in civilian airspace.

The unmanned aircraft offer a new way to “look over the horizon,” Renuart said, allowing NORTHCOM to look far across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and “help us pin down where a maritime threat may arise.”

The Navy is pursuing a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program and variants of both the Global Hawk and Predator are vying for the job.

Renuart said he’s “taking advantage of the versatility and flexibility” of UAVs by using them to help the US Customs and Border Patrol agency and the US Drug Enforcement Administration control “illicit trade and trafficking across our borders.” Using UAVs in this way is something NORTHCOM is working to “mature” every day, he said.

“Critically important to this is that we have standardized procedures, … standardized networks, that we have data systems that are common across a variety of domains,” Renuart asserted. “We don’t have that today.” Although there have been some steps toward standardization, “we have to continue that.”

Whether employed in homeland defense or deployed overseas, “we’ve got to ensure that the data systems all work, and I may need to push that [UAV-derived] picture to a fire chief, as opposed to a fire team.”

He concluded by noting that many of the visiting air chiefs have solved the issue of operating UAVs in civilian airspace in their home countries, but “we haven’t.”

“There’s real hesitancy to let unmanned systems fly around in our national aviation system. Unfortunately, that’s a fear based on myth, not … on the reality and ability of great airmen to control these systems and integrate them across our national airspace systems,” Renuart said. He predicted a “lot of work to do in that regard,” and promised NORTHCOM would be at it “every day.”

The civilian airspace situation will be especially important as more Guard units begin flying the UAVs. They will need to be allowed to overfly populated areas and in normal air traffic corridors for training, and especially be able to respond quickly in domestic natural disasters. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Predators were used to search for survivors and assess damage, but their sensors were lashed to the tops of tall buildings in the affected area, because they had no permission to fly there.

The dependence on UAVs is likely to grow. Air Force Space Command chief Gen. Kevin P. Chilton (now commander of US Strategic Command) noted that adding more ISR capability to high-flying UAVs is one way to decrease the threat from enemy anti-satellite systems. Having a robust ISR architecture that uses air-, ground-, sea-, and space-based assets reduces the value of developing an ASAT such as one demonstrated by China earlier this year. Redundant systems reduce the chance of knocking out a significant chunk of US ISR capabilities with a single well-aimed shot.

Chilton also said he and ACC have decided to let ACC be in charge of “near space” UAVs that may stay aloft for weeks at a time. Chilton said such systems “aren’t really near space,” since they fly at altitudes that are still “only about a quarter of the way” to orbit.