Monday, March 24, 2008

The Continuing Battle Over UAVs

A recent Los Angeles Times article details the latest skirmish in the Pentagon's internal battle over UAVs. According to the paper, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered the Air Force to put virtually all of its UAVs into combat, supporting operations in Iraq in Afghanistan. However, the service is warning that an expanded drone presence could cripple squadrons that are already over-stressed:

Pressure from the Defense secretary in recent months has nearly doubled the number of Predators available to help hunt insurgents and find roadside bombs in Iraq. But it has forced air commanders into a scramble for crews that officers said could hurt morale and harm the long-term viability of the Predator program.

Some officers said pressure from Gates resulted in one plan that could have taken the Air Force down a path similar to the German Luftwaffe, which cut back training in World War II to get more pilots in the air.

"That was the end of their air force," said Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the Air Force's Predator wing. The Air Force plan, presented to the military leadership in January, eventually was scaled back.

The surge in drone flights is Gates' latest push for short-term measures to win the Iraq war that will have long-term implications for the U.S. military. In recent months, Gates has campaigned to increase the size of the Army and to ship new, heavily armored troop transporters, known as MRAPs, to Iraq.


The Army has argued that more overhead drones will save troops' lives, a position largely adopted by Gates. But the Air Force has complained that simply demanding more, with no end in sight, would severely strain the service -- just as repeated deployments of ground soldiers has strained the Army.

At the SecDef's direction, the number of continuous UAV missions, or orbits, has increased from 12 to 22--and Gates would like to push that total even higher. But the Air Force claims its Predator and Reaper squadrons are already at the breaking point, and would be hard-pressed to sustain another increase in operations.

At one point, the Times reports, Secretary Gates was pressing for as many as 36 orbits over Afghanistan and Iraq--a plan that would have halted training of new Predator crews. The so-called "All In" plan would have kept some pilots in drone squadrons for years, well beyond the end of their scheduled tours.

Under the current "surge" some pilots are spending two additional years in UAV assignments, a move that has serious implications for their careers--and the Air Force as a whole. There are no "career" UAV pilots in the USAF; flying a Predator or Reaper is the equivalent of a special duty or "broadening" assignment, spent "outside" their normal aircraft system.

As you might expect, fighter and bomber pilots who've been flying a UAV for the past 2-4 years are anxious to return to the aircraft they were originally trained to fly. After being out of those cockpits for years, they're at a disadvantage in comparison to their peers--fighter and bomber jocks who remained in their primary aircraft. Those latter pilots--who have logged hundreds of additional flying hours--have already qualified for such positions as multi-ship flight leads, package commanders and flight commanders, based on their added experience. That gives them a leg up for more important operational jobs, not to mention promotions.

But, it's a bit of a stretch in comparing the training woes of UAV units to the German Luftwaffe of World War II. The German Air Force was forced to curtail training for a simple reason; it was attempting to support a multi-front war--and defend the homeland against an onslaught of Allied bombers and their fighter escorts. To support that requirement, the Germans needed every qualified pilot an operational cockpit and, quite predictably, training suffered. That's one reason that "new" Luftwaffe pilots in the waning days of World War II entered combat with only a few hours of flight training. Most proved easy meat for their more experienced--and better trained--Allied counterparts.

So, any resemblance between today's U.S. Air Force and the Luftwaffe of 1945 is purely coincidental. However, the UAV Wing Commander who made that comparison (Col Chambliss) is right about one thing: you can't halt or curtail your training program without serious, long-term consequences. That's why the Air Force would be well-advised to "bite the bullet" and create a separate UAV training unit, apart from the wing at Creech. Forming that type of organization would reduce pressure on the operational wing, and go a long way towards establishing drones as a legitimate career path for professional aviators.

As a part of that process, the service also needs to answer an essential question: is it really necessary for UAV "drivers" to be fully rated pilots? Under the current system, that means that every new Predator or Reaper jock has to complete undergraduate pilot training (UPT), and upgrade training for their particular type of aircraft before they master the UAV. That represents an investment of more than one year (and over $1 million), plus the cost of the drone training program--for pilots who will serve only one tour in a UAV squadron.

The answer seems obvious: create a specialized cadre of operators who will fly drones for extended periods--perhaps their entire career. And, taking a page from the Army playbook, most of the "operators" could be warrant officers. That would require the Air Force to restore those grades, but it would (largely) eliminate concerns about career advancement or time out of a "primary" cockpit, while ensuring that drone units had experienced aviators to fill line positions. Utilizing this approach, UAV units would still be led by commissioned pilots who advanced through the ranks, but had previous experience with a drone system.

But if the Air Force must modify its approach to training (and manning) UAV squadrons, then the Army--and DoD leadership--must also change their mindset. Obviously, platforms like Predator and Reaper bring a new dimension to the battlefield, and their combination of persistance surveillance (and limited strike capabilities) have saved American lives. But experience also shows that not all ground operations require UAV support.

In fact, one of the missions cited in the Times article--the hunt for IEDs--has proven to be a poor fit for drone units and their supporting intelligence systems. In a speech last summer, the former Commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command observed that Predator units had found relatively few IEDs, despite years of trying. During his address, General Ron Keys suggested that UAVs might be better used for other missions. In hindsight, Keys' remarks were clearly an early response to the planned increase in drone missions. Obviously, ground commanders (and Mr. Gates) disagree with the general's conclusions.

For the time being, it appears that the Air Force, the SecDef and drone "customers" have reached some sort of accomodation. There are no current plans to implement the "All In" strategy, and USAF UAV squadrons can support the current effort--at some cost in terms of crew training and rotation. But the long-term answer remains elusive. Ground commanders and senior DoD leaders want overhead surveillance on a grand scale--something that isn't practical, given the numbers of drone and crews available.

At the same time, the Air Force wants a more limited UAV presence, allowing it to stay in the fight, with less impact on pilot training and rotation. But, given the demands of the current conflict--and the wishes of key Defense Department officials--that isn't realistic, either. Instead, what's needed is a realistic strategy for manning, training and employment of UAV units.

The notion that you need a fully-trained pilot to fly a drone by remote control is absurd--as is the idea of 36 continuous UAV orbits over the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. To ensure a proper level of support, the Air Force, its ground "customers" and representatives of the SecDef need to develop innovative solutions, ensuring that drone squadrons have enough pilots--and Army and Marine units receive the suveillance they need.

As a part of that effort, defense planners must also consider another, vital link in the UAV chain, namely the Distributed Common Ground Systems (DCGS) that process and disseminate information collected by Predator and Reaper sensors. Despite a recent DCGS "building boom" among Air National Guard units, the number of these systems remains relatively small. Limits on UAV ops are also a product of DCGS availability, manning and training. Any discussion about a viable plan for UAVs must address the DCGS aspect as well. We saw no mention of that element in the Times' story, an omission that we find both curious and troubling.

ADDENDUM: It's also obvious that Army demands for increased surveillance and control are nothing but a ploy for its own, expanded UAV program. While we have no quarrel with more drones for the Army (and other services), we think the rapid expansion of those units restates the case for UAV executive agent for DoD--with the Air Force the most logical candidate--and the need for standardization between DCGS units already in operation, and those being planned by the other services.


JJ Joseph said...

There's no reason that UAV operators have to be fresh pilot with class 1 medical, perfect eyesight, perfect heart-rate, etc. Just like a lot of airline flight sim instructors are retired or class 4 medical pilots, UAVs could easily be operated by the retired class. Or the pregnant class. Or the handicapped class.

OldSarg said...

It is time the Pilots Union was broken.

resurgemus said...

Or the enlisted class. I'll retrain from my career field tomorrow. With a six-year re-enlistment, no bonus.

Epaminondas said...

Actual pilots flying UAV's?

How totally wasteful of human resources can we get?

How profligate?

Maybe Ender's Game should be required reading in the Air Force Academy

Jim Howard said...

I don't know the current policy, but for a while the USAF let a few navigators who held FAA commercial pilot certificates fly the drones. The USAF has promised the FAA that UAVs will not be operated by non-pilots.

What the USAF could do very cheaply is pay their navs to get their FAA certificates in the civil sector. I think they are already paying for private pilot certificates for ROTC and AFA navigator candidates. FAA training costs a tiny fraction of USAF training. Pilots and navs receive near identical ground training, so there is no knowledge gap.

That's another good source of UAV pilots.

F said...

It sounds to me like there's a little "gaming" going on by the USAF. A little gaming in return would probably sort this out quickly: let the word out that Gates is considering taking the UAV program out of military hands entirely and turning it over to civilian contractors. Then see if the USAF is unable to staff what he wants. F

Mil-Tech Bard said...

This is a very wise comment I was sent on the USAF versus US Army UAV debate.

People would do well to think on it:

"One reason manned aircraft are so expensive is that they have to come back to base, and bring the expensive and hard-to-replace pilot back with it. Making the aircraft survivable enough to bring back the pilot also makes it robust enough to upgrade, and keep it flying for decades. Cf. B-52.

Expensive, long-lived aircraft demand officers in command. Yet even the USAF is starting to think of NCO UAV pilots. You only need video game skills because your ass isn't on the line. The cheaper the vehicle, the less likely it will be an officers-only toy.

The only exception is in mass-casualty situations, like the RAF in WW2, where they had lots of Flight Sergeants flying the same aircraft as officers. But with an expected lifetime of about a half-dozen missions, why make someone "an officer and a gentleman", especially if they come from the lower classes?

The cheaper and more common UAVs become, the more they will be flown by NCO Bubba, and not some Academy grad. It also means flying no longer becomes the preferred career path in the Service that exists to fly. Gold-plated UAVs that cost as much as manned aircraft help to postpone that day.

Technology long ago put armored vehicles and artillery in the hands of the EM. Officers can advance by leading large numbers of these EM-piloted vehicles, but they don't need any special skill of their own to "fly" one. Fighter pilots see themselves as the last armored knights on their costly steeds. As with the old mounted aristocracy, they'd rather fight other aristocrats than support the commoner scum on the ground.

If they can't stop the UAV, they can at least gold-plate it, and try to control every last one out there, even the overgrown RC model in some E-4s backpack. UAVs in the hands of ground forces such as Army and Marines are as much a threat to the pilot/aristocrat as the musket was to the knight. We know how that one ended.

If the Air Force wants to keep the silk-scarf fraternity functioning, they need to look down the road another 20 years, and find a niche that won't be filled soon by remotely-piloted vehicles. Perhaps they shouldn't bank so much on the F-22 and F-35 (fewer will be needed as UCAV capabilities increase), and go back to concepts of the early 1960s of manned orbital/suborbital strike/recon."

Mil-Tech Bard said...

The reality is that UAVs are taking over the close air support and aerial reconnaissance roles. Defense budget will soon follow that fact.

If the USAF brass does not head these trends off and fast, their existance as a seperate service is at stake.

Previously, the USAF was arguing that jet fighters with JDAM bombs could replace US Army tube and rocket artillary.

That was tried and failed at Tora Bora in Afghanistan.

The arrival of the Guided MLRS and Excalibur 155mm guided shells has turned that debate on its head. US Army artillery with PGMs and UAV support is cheaper and more tactically useful than jets in urban combat.

The arrival of GPS fuzes for tube artillery is less than 18 months away, which will make every US Army artillery shell "smart.".

Consider this passage from

Note that the air force only dropped 177 smart bombs in Iraq last year, and only fired 52 Hellfire (from Predators) or Maverick missiles. Activity is up this year, but still minuscule compared to past wars. So every smart bomb or missile counts, and accuracy is very important. Meanwhile, army and marine helicopters fired ten times as many missiles, as well as over 10,000 70mm unguided rockets and over 10 million rounds of cannon and machine-gun ammunition. This year, the air forces is using a lot more Maverick missiles, and is borrowing laser guided versions from the navy.

at this link:

The USAF has to get UAV control ASAP, or it never will. If it does not, it will lose the close air support and tactical recce missions and the budget$ that go with them.

This current battle is just the latest institutional skirmish in this turf war.

See this link:

and this text about the turf fights over air traffic control over the battle field:

You Can't Take The Sky From Me

July 2, 2007: The battle, between the U.S. Army and Air Force, over who controls the air space over the battlefield, continues to heat up. What's happened, in effect, is that that, because of UAVs and smart bombs, most of the aircraft over the battlefield belong to the army. As a result, the army wants to have control over that air space, even though, traditionally, the air force has been in charge. The army is pushing the fact that most of the aerial vehicles (UAVs, helicopters, artillery shells, rockets) at low altitudes (under 20,000 feet) are army. For example, the army currently has over 1,300 UAVs in Iraq, over 200 helicopters, and dozens of rocket launchers and 155mm guns. In effect, over 95 percent of the aircraft at low altitudes belong to the army. It makes no sense to have the air force calling the shots. To handle all this traffic, the army has developed an air traffic control system (TAIS, or Tactical Airspace Integration System) which uses a laptop screen to show all air traffic in a several hundred square kilometer area. TAIS systems cost about $3 million each, and draws data from many sources, to allow army commanders to have a 3-D view of what's up there. The army has TAIS link to air force ATC (air traffic control), but the air force attitude is that they have always called the shots over who does what up there, and that's the way it should stay.

Epaminondas said...

Mil tech bard..your first comment is proper.
The air force needs to set their eyes a bit higher. And then even higher.

UCAV, and UAV's are the tactical PRESENT, and B-2 UCAV replacements will lead the way in the next generation's engagements in high risk areas.

Resistance is futile.

SMSgt Mac said...

"NCO Bubba?"
As the senior active-duty UAV controller (big frog-little pond until the money started flowing)in the Air Force until the AF decided they needed a place to park 'banked' pilots in the early 1990s, I find that reference just a 'tidge' offensive.

Outside of the 'pilots must be officers' angle the AF's position on UAVs is correct. Read RAND's "Learning Large Lessons" (available free online) to understand a lot of the reasons why the AF should continue keep controlling the sky.

I'm familiar with the original Army complaint (this round) and agree with this post's addendum. My first reaction to the Army's stats was "an unavailable organic asset will never be complained about and it will never be missed by the guy in the next AOR" the Army found a problem because they were looking for one.

the bottom line driver is that everyone is still living with the Key West 'Roles and Missions' mentality when really it should be 'Mediums and Methods' defining service roles ESPECIALLY after Goldwater Nichols.

BrianFH said...

Sounds like technology is running roughshod up the AF's butt and back. It won't be that many waves of new tech before the UAS has virtual sensory feedback, and immense responsiveness. What will be needed is a responsive and agile controlling brain, some of which will be electronic.

Handicapped, wounded, never-flown-an-hour personnel will be just as suitable as blooded pilots. That bottleneck needs to be smashed into slivers and shards ASAP.