A new Associated Press report affirms what many have long known: the global struggle against Islamic fascism is, in some respects, a remote control war. From the robots used against roadside bombs, to the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operating overhead, our military forces are relying, more than ever, on remotely operated systems to save lives and expand capabilities.
The AP article reports that flying time for military UAVs passed 500,000 hours during the year that just ended. That reflects a continuing surge in drone activity that began two years ago; since then, the number of flying hours logged by UAVs has more than tripled, from 150,000 in 2005, to more than a half-million hours in 2007.
Figures obtained by the wire service also note that the Air Force doubled its use of drones between January and October of last year--the same time frame that corresponded with the U.S.-led troop surge. With more units engaged on the ground, the demand for persistent surveillance increased, putting more strain on UAV units. Ironically, there have been a number of recent press reports on the "surge" in UAV accidents in Iraq, while ignoring the jump in flight activity. Go figure.
A Pentagon official interviewed for the story predicts that demand for the drones will remain high, despite the projected decline in ground units. That will (likely) renew the debate over UAV employment, and how much coverage is really required for on-going operations. Accidents aside, the sustained, high operations tempo of Predator, Raven and Global Hawk units puts added pressure on crews, maintenance personnel, the logistics system--and the extensive intelligence network used to process information gathered by UAVs.
A few months ago, the outgoing commander of Air Combat Command--which controls much of the Air Force's drone assets--suggested that many UAV sorties devoted to the IED hunt were, essentially, wasted. General Ron Keys, who retired in October, observed that UAV flights had uncovered only a few roadside bombs, and suggested that the drones might be better employed on other missions.
Not surprisingly, Keys' suggestion fell on deaf ears. While UAVs may have been marginally successful in spotting IEDs, they have been quite useful on other missions, including the surveillance (and sometimes, the targeting) of high-value assets. Along with SOF personnel on the ground, Predators kept watch on terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before an F-16 finally killed him.
More recently, Predators and Ravens were instrumental in eliminating insurgent anti-aircraft teams that produced a spike in U.S. helicopter losses. The UAVs tracked enemy gunners back to their safe houses and training areas, allowing them to be eliminated by other aircraft, or by drones firing Hellfire missiles.
Another factor in the UAV "surge" has been increased access to their video feeds by troops on the ground. Introduction of a system called Rover has allowed ground units to "see" what the drone is watching, and order immediate strikes by the drone pilot. Before Rover, ground commanders only had a vague idea of what the UAV could see, and approving an attack took as long as 45 minutes. Not surprisingly, a lot of terrorists got away before Rover was widely deployed.
With UAV units facing a similar operations schedule in 2008, the burden of meeting that demand will be felt beyond the squadron level. Major Commands (MAJCOMs), the Air Force and the Defense Department must find a way to fully fund the flying schedule---and the intel support system--even at the expense of other programs. Resolving that issue will be just as important as juggling unit deployments and crew schedules to keep those UAVs in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan.