Tuesday, April 22, 2008

How the SecDef Got It Wrong

Military circles are still abuzz over yesterday's speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Speaking to students at the Air War College, Mr. Gates criticized the Air Force for "not doing enough" in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also observed that trying to get the service to send more UAVs to the war zone was "like pulling teeth."

While the SecDef's harsh critique is grabbing headlines, few people pay attention to the other side of the UAV argument. As we noted yesterday, the recent surge in drone operations in the Middle East comes at a price. Pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles--pulled from the cockpits of manned aircraft--are serving longer tours, limiting their prospects for advancement and promotion. Efforts to train new UAV crews have been hampered as well, since most pilots and sensor operators are busy flying combat missions.

There's also the lingering question of how effective the drones really are. Before he retired last year, General Ron Keys, commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command (which "owns" most of the military's UAVs and crews), declared that the unmanned aircraft are largely useless for some missions in the war zone, including the search for IEDs.

But, such protests have fallen on deaf ears. With ground commanders clamoring for more UAV support, the number of drone orbits has doubled over the past year and Mr. Gates is pushing for a further increase, even if it means pulling a few more Air Force molars.

In his Aviation Week blog, veteran defense writer Bill Sweetman doesn't say that the SecDef has no clothes, but suggests that his UAV argument is shabbily dressed, at best. The problem, he reports, isn't a lack of pilots (or Air Force disinterest in the drone mission), but rather, the extensive training requirements associated with UAVs:

If you've ever spent five minutes talking to GA-ASI president Tom Cassidy, you know that the Predator has to be flown by a pilot. The ground control system (GCS) is cockpit-like, with stick and rudder pedals - this is not a mouse-commanded automaton. The backseater needs skills, too, because the Predator is designed to direct lethal force even when it is not using its own weapons; and despite the seeming "war by video game" simplicity of the system, retaining situational awareness despite the soda-straw view through the turreted sensors is not easy.

Moreover, everyone knows that a midair or a blue-on-blue involving a UAV will set back the entire project by years. That this has not happened is a testament to rigorous training and disciplined operations.

Of course commanders never have enough overhead full-motion video (FMV); they'd like it all the time. But people have realized something else about 24-hour, FMVUAVs: they are voracious consumers of pilot hours. Consider this: one Predator orbit requires at least six combat-trained aircrew flying three shifts. If they are going to have any time at all for recurrent training, make that eight or ten crew. And if the operation is to be sustained, add four or five people in replacement training.

The Predator operation is expanding, too, which means that there are three training streams: proficiency, replacement and expansion. All of those require hardware, instructors and maintenance support. At the same time, the USAF has introduced the bigger Reaper, imposing a new training burden.

But the training issues aren't limited to the UAV crews. Information collected by the drones must be exploited and processed, a task typically performed by intelligence specialists at one of the Air Force's Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) facilities. Every operational UAV mission requires the support of dozens of intelligence specialists. As you might have guessed, there are only a handful of DCGS sites, with personnel that must be trained for the mission. The limited number of DCGS facilities (and their in-house training requirements) places another limit on the number of UAV missions that can be flown.

Obviously, getting more UAVs into the fight entails more than shipping additional Predators or Reapers to Balad and putting them on the flying schedule. Increasing the number of orbits and sorties will require trade-offs. More operational missions will mean cuts in crew training and longer tours for pilots and sensor operators already trained in the system. If training levels dip too low, the Air Force will find it even more difficult to field enough UAV crews.

Some of the proposed work-arounds are problematic, too. As Mr. Sweetman notes, Army proposals to use non-rated pilots for its Warrior UAVs will increase chances for a midair collision or a fratricide incident, something the Air Force has worked hard to avoid. The "Big Sky, Little Airplane" theory only goes so far.

Of course, that doesn't mean that enlisted aviators or limited-duty pilots can't handle drones. But operating them in a safe and effective manner will require an extensive training program, akin to the current Air Force effort. Facing that reality, it's quite possible that Army and Marine Corps UAV units will face the same training issues at some point down the road. When that happens, will Mr. Gates' successor press for an even greater number of orbits, or realize there are limits on what unmanned aircraft can do.

As for the current SecDef, he plans to continue the push to get more UAVs to Iraq and Afghanistan, convinced that the Air Force just isn't trying hard enough. Mr. Gates recently-created UAV task force will be very busy in the coming months, trying to make his vision a reality. But the cost of attaining that goal--in crew training, aircraft maintenance, intelligence support and flight safety--has yet to be measured.


ADDENDUM: In response to the Maxwell speech, the Air Force offered its own volley, detailing recent efforts to increase UAV support. Back to you, Mr. Secretary.


Jim Howard said...

If the problem is that the USAF won't promote UAV pilots then the USAF can fix that problem.

It is critical that UAVs be flown by pilots. Maybe a larger pilot bonus for UAV tours is indicated.

Also the USAF should pay for FAA commercial pilot certificates for Navs who are willing to fly UAVs. It's been proven that these guys are indistinguishable from 'real' USAF pilots in the UAV role, and they are cheaper and not such big babies.

Ken Prescott said...

The Air Force has made a series of decisions that has resulted in (a) annoying the COCOMs (i.e., their customers) and (b) annoying the SECDEF (i.e., their boss).

I submit that this is not an optimal state of affairs.

Instead of pointing at the problems their decisions have created as a reason why they can't make the COCOMs and the SECDEF happy, the USAF should be focusing on (a) developing a plan of action to make the COCOMs and the SECDEF happy and (b) executed said plan as expeditiously as possible.

But that's just me.

Dave Rickey said...

The elephant in the room is that although UAV operators must be more than simply technicians, needing all the training on combat procedure and instrument flight of a pilot, they don't have to be *pilots*. Much of a pilot's training is wasted on a UAV, and the physical standards are total overkill (a UAV operator doesn't need to pull 9 G's, have perfect uncorrected vision, or fit into a narrow height range).

There has always been a tension in the USAF between the jocks and the geeks, the people who fly the planes and the people without whom the planes cannot fly. And it's generally been resolved in favor of the jocks, it's rare to get a combat command or flag rank if you're not a pilot or former pilot.

UAV's break that model. You don't *need* a fighter jock with a few million dollars of training to operate a UAV. And a UAV can potentially far outperform a manned aircraft, not only on endurance but on flight fundamentals.

The USAF's passive-aggressive attitude towards the UAV is not simply institutional inertia, but an awareness that a UAV-oriented Air Force would be a very different institution.

wesley said...

nah.. sec def got it right. the air force is being dragged kicking and screaming into supporting the effort more, as usual. i'm tired of the air force and their whiny officer corps. they wanted to be the proponent for UAVs. they got it. now they are complaining that they actually have to use them. i can fix this in 3 words Army Air Corps.