Where Do UAVs Go From Here?

July 1, 2005

Washington, D.C., June 8 —

Within 10 years, one-third of US … deep strike aircraft will be unmanned,” said Congress’ 2001 defense bill. This claim, while shocking at the time, seems much less so in retrospect.

Indeed, unmanned aerial vehicles, in general, have advanced further and faster than had once seemed possible. Previously, the services had only a handful of UAVs; today, they operate upwards of 1,000 remotely piloted aircraft and are clamoring for more, given that many of these systems have proved their operational worth in Afghanistan and Iraq.

While most UAVs today are nonlethal, DOD’s soon-to-be $3 billion-per-year program aims to give them a share of the strike mission, too.

Ironically, however, the very success of UAVs—with the prospect for their heavier employment—has created serious problems which could limit their future usefulness. Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force Chief of Staff, argues with considerable force that the effort has become disjointed, pulled apart by the “tribal jealousies” among the various US armed services.

In fact, the Air Force has proposed to the Pentagon that it make USAF the “executive agent” to take the lead in coordinating various UAV efforts. The idea does not set well with the other armed services, but the debate isn’t over yet.

The fact that something must be done has become all too apparent.

One problem concerns UAV development. Each service has gone its own way working its UAV projects. In recent remarks to a Heritage Foundation audience in Washington, D.C., Jumper said, “We’ve got a plethora of people … selling their UAVs [to the various services] out of their back pocket.”

At present, the UAV fleet comprises about 300 Air Force systems, 600 Army aircraft, and 150 Navy/Marine Corps vehicles.

There are currently five major UAVs in the fleet—the USAF Predator and Global Hawk; the Army Hunter and Shadow; and the Navy/Marine Corps Pioneer. Counting smaller systems, the armed services are operating approximately one dozen UAV types. Others are on the drawing boards.

The Lone Ranger approach to UAV development, critics maintain, ensures wasteful duplication of effort that will reduce the total capability of the fleet. There are no standards for logistics, training, or ground stations.

Worse, actual UAV operations are unfolding in a dangerously improvisational fashion.

Coordination is spotty. The USAF Predator and Global Hawk, for example, are controlled by a joint force air component commander, as are manned aircraft. Such is not the case, however, with Army UAVs, which directly support ground units. They are controlled by the land commander, not the “air boss.”

“We have 750 UAVs over in Iraq right now,” Jumper told the Royal United Services Institute in London. “Everybody wants their own.”

He explained that, under such conditions, it is difficult to organize the UAVs so that they can be in the right place at the right time.

With so many aircraft over the battlespace, the skies are crowded, and some pilots are unhappy about sharing airspace with the drones. They have cause; there have been at least two collisions and several near misses.

Safety isn’t the only problem. Jumper told the Heritage group that, with so many operators using the same radio frequencies, “we’re jamming each other.”

Right now, Jumper went on, the airspace is uncontested, but the problems would grow exponentially should an enemy challenge US dominance.

In the Air Force’s view, creating an executive agent for UAVs would streamline the way UAVs are acquired and managed, unifying and thus strengthening the whole apparatus. It would also foster common operational concepts and procedures.

The Air Force believes—rightly, in our view—that it has the best claim to this role. Officials note that the Air Force has the mission of airspace control. They also claim USAF has had more and longer experience with UAVs.

USAF’s commitment seems destined to grow in years ahead. For one thing, the Pentagon has put the Air Force in charge of the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System, the goal of which is to produce at least two UAV strike aircraft.

It was Jumper himself who conceived the idea of arming the Predator with Hellfire missiles. Such innovation seems certain to go on, given the establishment of an Air Force UAV Center of Excellence near Nellis AFB, Nev.

Moreover, USAF has announced plans to expand its current Predator fleet from three to as many as 15 squadrons.

It is said that the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps believe that more coordination is necessary but that they see no valid need for an executive agent. They are worried that USAF, if given such a specific legal role, would exercise undue power over their system requirements, funding, and technologies.

At present, Pentagon officials are similarly chary about the plan. They seem to be leaning toward splitting the UAV world into two segments—one comprising small UAVs and another for larger aircraft, though this could create more problems than it solves.

Jumper doesn’t insist on any particular plan, so long as it produces coordination. “What we do have to do,” he said, “is get everybody under the same roof, talking the same language, organizing ourselves toward a single purpose, and stop worrying about ownership issues.”

We think the Air Force has a good case. It has clearly challenged some powerful interests. The outcome is uncertain. Stay tuned.