Friday, April 27, 2007

An "Executive Agent" for UAVs?

There's a major battle brewing in the Pentagon, over who will control the military's most important--and capable--unmanned aerial vehicles.

Last month, Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley sent a memo to senior defense officials, arguing that his service should be the "executive agent" for all "medium- and high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles across the U.S. military." That would put the Air Force in charge of Predator variants that provide extensive support for the Global War on Terror; high-altitude, long-endurance Global Hawk UAVs, and future unmanned systems that will operate in those environments.

In his memo (dated 5 March), General Moseley noted that the Air Force is “organized, trained and equipped” for this role since the air service is already conducting “joint, interdependent warfare from the air and through space and cyberspace.” From an operations perspective, that means the Air Force is already responsible for Global Hawk operations, most Predator missions, and (equally important), it already controls the Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS) architecture used to support UAV and U-2 missions, extracting perishable intelligence data, and disseminating it to multi-service customers. In many respects, approval of "executive agent" authority would merely confirm acquisition and operational arrangements that already exist.

Not surprisingly, the other services aren't quite prepared to give the Air Force what it wants. As reported by Inside the Pentagon (subscription required), the rest of DoD is unsure about the implications of "executive agent" authority. Is the USAF only looking for leadership in developing and acquiring medium and high-altitude UAVs, or does it also want a say in how those platforms are used by other branches of the military.

In response to the Air Force proposal, the Pentagon's Joint Requirements Oversight Council has given the service 30 days to explain how it would operate as executive agent for UAVs. Some of the service's senior officers are already attempting to clarify the issue. Lt Gen David Deptula, the Air Force's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), tried to distinguish between an executive agent for UAV development and procurement matters, and the joint employment of those platforms.

UAV capability is not an extension of the ground force; it is an extension of the joint force. The Air Force provides the expertise in the aerial domain, as the ground forces do on land,” said General Deptula.

And, Deptula took a little dig at his Army counterparts, who have (historically) advocated the division of air assets among ground units. He offered an analogy, using a city that covers 50 blocks, but only has five fire trucks.

“If the mayor designated one truck to one block, those five fire trucks would be assigned to only five blocks—that’s the Army approach. If a fire broke out in a block outside those five, no fire truck would respond. The joint approach that the Air Force supports would leave it up to the mayor—or joint force commander—to allocate the five fire trucks based on which blocks needed them most,” General Deptula said. “That is the role the joint force commander delegates to the joint force air component commander.”

It's the same approach currently used in allocating UAVs and manned aircraft to support ground operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, it's essentially the same system used since the early days of World War II in North Africa, when the disaster at Kasserine Pass illustrated the folly of permanently assigning air assets to specific ground units. Commanders in quiet sectors refused to turn over their aircraft to units under fire, resulting in a lack of air support for units that needed it most. The debacle in North Africa provided the impetus for today's Tactical Air Control System (TACS), which puts airmen in charge of managing and allocating air assets, in response to the needs of the ground commander.

Given the long-term success of our existing air control system, there's no reason for the Pentagon to muddy the waters, by giving the other services more authority over the employment of medium and high-altitude UAVs. In fact, such an arrangement would make matters infinitely more difficult for the joint forces air component commander (JFACC), who has the job of managing, allocating and controlling literally hundreds of manned and unmanned platforms. Under the existing JFACC system, Predator and Global Hawk have provided the bulk of ISR collection in both Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that the platforms are often "remotely" flown, by pilots actually based in the CONUS.

From a program management standpoint, it also makes sense to name the Air Force as "executive agent" for medium and high-altitude UAVs. After all, the service already "owns" most of these programs, and the Pentagon can save real money by avoiding unnecessary duplication in key UAV programs. And, as General Deptula noted, the Air Force proposal would have no impact on smaller UAVs, operated at the battalion-level (or lower). The "backpack" or man-portable drones now in service with the Army and Marine Corps would remain under their control. Ditto for fleet-specific UAVs, owned by the navy.

In reality, potential opposition to the Air Force "executive agent" proposal is firmly rooted in procurement dollars, and not in command or allocation issues. Fact is, the Army and Navy have lagged behind on UAV development, opting instead to let the Air Force shoulder development and employment costs. Now, with platforms like Predator and Global Hawk assuming an important role in ISR operations, the other services find themselves being squeezed out. Over the past year or so, the Air Force has been approached by the Navy (on several occasions) for advice on UAV and DCGS establishment and employment. The message is clear: the Navy doesn't want to miss the boat (no pun intended) on UAVs, the associated intel infrastructure, and the money that is flowing into those efforts. That's why the other services are likely to sustain their fight against the Air Force and its "executive agent" proposal for medium and high-altitude UAVs.

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