There's little doubt that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have become "darlings" of the modern battlefield. With their ability to loiter and provide persistent, real-time surveillance across wide areas, UAV systems like Predator (which operates at medium altitude) and the long-range, high-altitude Global Hawk are considered indispensable by our military forces, supporting operations in Afghanistan and Iraq literally around-the-clock.
One indicator of our growing reliance on UAVs can be found in the operations logs of the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, one of the Air Force's early Predator units. Over a one-year period (July 2005-June 2006), the 15th RS was one of the service's busiest flying units, providing extensive support for the War on Terror from deployed locations, and its home station, Creech AFB, Nevada:
"...[during that period] the squadron participated in more than 242 separate raids; engaged 132 troops in contact-force protection actions; fired 59 Hellfire missiles; surveyed 18,490 targets; escorted four convoys; and flew 2,073 sorties for more than 33,833 flying hours.
And, of course, all those UAV sorties require extensive support from intelligence systems and organizations, part of the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) network. Information collected by Predators or Global Hawks operating over the Middle East is typically processed and analyzed by DCGS operators in Virginia, California, Germany, or at various Air National Guard (ANG) units that are acquiring that capability.
We've written about the UAV/DCGS weapons system in the past, beginning with "The Long Distance War," in May 2006. The combination of UAVs and ground-based, real-time intelligence analysis brings new capabilities to the battlefield, allowing the "spooks" to relay critical data to SOF operators and "regular" ground forces during the operation. The same assets can also monitor activity along lines of communication, sometimes spotting activity associated with IED emplacement.
But are we receiving a sufficient "bang" for this heavy investment in UAVs, sensors, intelligence specialists and comm links? The Commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command (ACC), believes the answer to that question is "no," at least in terms of theIED hunt in Iraq.
During a keynote speech at last week's Transformation Warfare Confernce in Virginia Beach, Virginia, General Ronald Keys said that using UAVs and pod-equipped fighter jets to find IEDs is often a misuse of time and resources. Coverage of General Keys' speech--which was virtually ignored by the MSM--came from reporter Michael Fabey of Aerospace Daily.
According to General Keys, an Air Force analysis of IEDs located by UAVs, surveillance aircraft and pod-equipped fighters (per 100,000 flying hours) is very low. "It's a waste," he said.
"People come to me and tell me they want a Predator," he said. "I ask, 'What are you looking for?' Tell me what you're looking for, don't just tell me you want a J-STARS."
Unfortunately, the military is basing some of its decisions on anecdotes instead of real metrics, he said. Indeed, the only metric being used is whether the Air Force is meeting certain tasking orders, instead of making sure those assets and flights are effective and the best use of time and aircraft. "This is no way to fight a war," he said.
Flying pod-outfitted F-16s up and down streets no one will be on for another 12 hours will not help the IED fight, he said. Looking for buried IEDs in Iraq in that fashion is not the best way to stop attacks. "It's a junkyard out there," he said, adding there are too many false positives.
General Keys told the conference that his command has developed a "concept of deployment" to help fight IEDs that is air-centric "to a certain point." He said "we ought to be attacking the system--to the left of the bang--meaning the process before the IED is emplaced." Keys did not offer specifics on his deployment concept. He may have been referring to so-called "Weapons Intelligence Teams" (WITs) that have operated in Iraq over the past year. Those teams integrate personnel and expertise from a variety of disciplines--including explosive ordnance disposal, intelligence analysts, HUMINT teams--to identify networks and operational patterns among enemy bomb-makers.
Keys' criticism is significant for several reasons. First, as commander of ACC, he "owns" the UAV squadrons now being tasked for the IED mission. And, until the recent stand-up of the Air Force's new Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Agency, ACC also controlled key DCGS nodes providing the real-time analysis. With his speech, Keys became one of the highest-ranking Air Force officers to speak out against the current "utilization" scheme for key airpower assets in the War on Terror.
Secondly, the general's remarks offered veiled criticism of other Air Force organizations--and leaders. Deployed UAVs fall under the U.S. Central Air Forces (USCENTAF), part of CENTCOM. While the CENTAF commander works for CENTCOM, it is job of the air component commander (and his staff) to develop and execute the air campaign. With his speech in Virginia Beach, General Keys seems to hint that his CENTAF counterpart (Lieutenant General Gary North) could be more forceful in preventing the "misuse" of Air Force assets.
Finally, General Keys' critique echoes a familiar complaint among air commanders--namely, that war-fighting CINCs from other services have a poor understanding of air and space power, including its capabilities and limitations. Since the new CENTCOM commander (Admiral William Fallon) is a career aviator, Keys' dig may be aimed more at Army commanders--the same group that has questioned the Air Force's utility in the War on Terror.
Will Keys' speech result in any employment changes among Air Force UAVs and other surveillance assets? Probably not. Even a vague metric like "sorties flown" indicates that the service's UAVs are playing a role in the War on Terror, and the occasional IED "find" represents another success story that can be touted by public affairs officers and program managers. That, in turn, means more money for UAVs and the intelligence systems that support them.
But the general's remarks should prompt a timely--and informed--debate over the best way to use UAVs and other ISR assets in the War on Terror. Experience has shown that you don't need fixed-wing fast-movers for every ground-support mission in Iraq or Afghanistan; more often than not, something slower and more lethal (like an A-10 or Apache) will suffice. Similarly, an overhead, full motion video capability is only part of the answer for the IED problem on the ground. Now, it's up to the next generation of air commanders, ground commanders and intel collection managers to determine the "right" amount of UAV coverage for the IED mission.
Incidentally, General Keys gave his speech during same week that his retirement was announced. With his own departure now just months away, perhaps Keys finally felt "free" to speak his mind on the UAV topic.