It's no secret that Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Air Force have been fighting an increasingly-public battle over the service's contributions to the War on Terror. Gates has openly chided the USAF over its reluctance to increase the number of UAV orbits in Iraq and Afghanistan; in response, Air Force leaders say that many drone sorties are wasted and place an undue strain on units and personnel.
Today, Secretary Gates took his criticism of the USAF to a new level--and venue--delivering a stinging critique at the very Citadel of airpower, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Speaking to students at Air University, Gates said the Air Force is not doing enough to help in the war zones and complained that some military leaders are "stuck in old ways of doing business."
Getting the service to send more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft to Iraq and Afghanistan has been "like pulling teeth," Gates observed. He said the Air Force's desire to use pilots and aircrews for "its own missions" have kept the Pentagon from using larger numbers of unmanned aircraft.
“In my view we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt,” he said. “My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield.”
The Pentagon chief praised the Air Force for its overall contributions but made a point of urging it to do more and to undertake more creative ways of thinking about helping the war effort.
While Gates’ comments were directed mainly at the Air Force, his concern about faster fielding of unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft included a broader appeal to the entire military. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps have been expanding their fleets of drone aircraft.
"I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater," Gates told officer students at the war college.
Today we now have more than 5,000 UAVs, a 25-fold increase since 2001," Gates said. "But in my view we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt."
Responding to the secretary's speech, a Pentagon official told NBC News, "We're still scratching our heads over this one...we've done everything possible to open the floodgates and get everything to the battlefield as soon as possible." The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there are no additional UAVs available for deployment. Air Force officials have also stated that there isn't enough bandwidth to handle video down links from increased drone flights and the basing of additional drones would create parking problems at forward bases.
The secretary's comments at Maxwell represent the latest salvo in struggle over UAV operations that has become bitter in recent months. Gates' efforts to double the number of drone orbits in Iraq and Afghanistan has placed a severe burden on Air Force UAV units, making it difficult to support increased operations.
In some cases, drone pilots have found themselves stuck in their assignments, delaying their return to manned aircraft and decreasing prospects for promotion and advancement. The Air Force considers UAV assignments as special duty positions, filled by pilots who normally fly other aircraft, and return to their primary platforms once that tour is complete.
Commanders of UAV units have also voiced concerns that the "surge" in drone flights--in support of expanded ground operations--will undermine efforts to train new UAV crews. One Air Force study, circulated in recent weeks, warned that drone units were facing an internal collapse, akin to that of the German Luftwaffe in World War II. In the closing days of that conflict, German squadrons were so strained by daily operations that they were unable to adequately train new pilots. As experienced fliers were lost in combat, their units simply collapsed.
The forum--and location--for Mr. Gates' response was also rooted in history. Air University, based at Maxwell, has led the formulation of Air Force doctrine for decades. The historic base has long been at the forefront of Air Force policy and operational development, dating back to the Army Air Corps Tactical School of the 1930s, which advanced the precision bombing strategy used in World War II.
Mr. Gates' speech contained several references to "maverick" and "creative thinking, suggesting that the Air Force needs to rethink its doctrine, operational priorities and acquisition plans. Delivering his address to Air War College students, the defense secretary seemed to direct his appeal to the "next" generation of Air Force leaders, officers who will move into flag billets in the coming years.
The war college represents the highest level of military education for career officers; virtually all Air Force generals attend the 10-month course, or one of the sister schools run by the other services. Tailoring his remarks to future generals, Gates seemed to suggest that the current generation of Air Force leaders is too resistant to change.
Gates also used his address to highlight plans for pushing the UAV issue even harder. He reminded the students that he recently established a DOD task force to work the problem and "find more innovative ways to help those whose lives are on the line."
Ironically, creation of that organization represented another rebuke to the Air Force. Last year, Mr. Gates rejected the service's bid to become executive agent for the military's drone programs, giving it greater authority in the employment and acquisition of new UAVs and the intelligence networks they support. The task force created by the defense secretary will give the other services a greater voice in those issues.
However, the secretary's comments did not address a related controversy--is the dramatic increase in drone flights really necessary? While Gates would argue that the recent spike in UAV sorties is imperative, Air Force leaders have their doubts, triggering the disagreement that has become a public feud.
In a speech delivered last summer, the commander of the service's Air Combat Command, General Ron Keys, claimed that using UAVs to hunt for IEDs--a critical assignment in Iraq--represents a waste of time and resources. Speaking to a defense industry audience in Virginia, General Keys said that drones had detected only a "handful" of roadside bombs and suggested that the unmanned aircraft might be better utilized for other tasks.
While Keys' remarks received little publicity, they are believed to mirror those of other USAF officials, who have opposed Gates UAV employment plan. At one point, Mr. Gates reportedly proposed 30 drone orbits per day for Iraq and Afghanistan, providing persistent surveillance that ground commanders requested. But the Air Force balked at that figure, claiming it was not sustainable.
Since then, the service and the defense chief have compromised on a lower total, about two dozen orbits a day. Senior Air Force officials claim that any further increase in operations would over-stress UAV units that are already stretched thin, and make it nearly impossible to train replacement crews.
Medium and high-altitude UAVs like the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk utilize a two-man crew, consisting of a pilot and an enlisted sensor operator. Video collected by the onboard sensors are transmitted to large intelligence organizations, part of the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS). The number of DCGS units is also small, putting another limit on the number of UAV missions that can be flown each day.