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.