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The Continuing Battle Over UAVs

Dec 2, 2017
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A recent Los Angeles Times article details the latest skirmish in the Pentagon’s internal battle over UAVs. According to the paper, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered the Air Force to put virtually all of its UAVs into combat, supporting operations in Iraq in Afghanistan. However, the service is warning that an expanded drone presence could cripple squadrons that are already over-stressed:

Pressure from the Defense secretary in recent months has nearly doubled the number of Predators available to help hunt insurgents and find roadside bombs in Iraq. But it has forced air commanders into a scramble for crews that officers said could hurt morale and harm the long-term viability of the Predator program.

Some officers said pressure from Gates resulted in one plan that could have taken the Air Force down a path similar to the German Luftwaffe, which cut back training in World War II to get more pilots in the air.

“That was the end of their air force,” said Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the Air Force’s Predator wing. The Air Force plan, presented to the military leadership in January, eventually was scaled back.

The surge in drone flights is Gates’ latest push for short-term measures to win the Iraq war that will have long-term implications for the U.S. military. In recent months, Gates has campaigned to increase the size of the Army and to ship new, heavily armored troop transporters, known as MRAPs, to Iraq.


The Army has argued that more overhead drones will save troops’ lives, a position largely adopted by Gates. But the Air Force has complained that simply demanding more, with no end in sight, would severely strain the service — just as repeated deployments of ground soldiers has strained the Army.

At the SecDef’s direction, the number of continuous UAV missions, or orbits, has increased from 12 to 22–and Gates would like to push that total even higher. But the Air Force claims its Predator and Reaper squadrons are already at the breaking point, and would be hard-pressed to sustain another increase in operations.

At one point, the Times reports, Secretary Gates was pressing for as many as 36 orbits over Afghanistan and Iraq–a plan that would have halted training of new Predator crews. The so-called “All In” plan would have kept some pilots in drone squadrons for years, well beyond the end of their scheduled tours.

Under the current “surge” some pilots are spending two additional years in UAV assignments, a move that has serious implications for their careers–and the Air Force as a whole. There are no “career” UAV pilots in the USAF; flying a Predator or Reaper is the equivalent of a special duty or “broadening” assignment, spent “outside” their normal aircraft system.

As you might expect, fighter and bomber pilots who’ve been flying a UAV for the past 2-4 years are anxious to return to the aircraft they were originally trained to fly. After being out of those cockpits for years, they’re at a disadvantage in comparison to their peers–fighter and bomber jocks who remained in their primary aircraft. Those latter pilots–who have logged hundreds of additional flying hours–have already qualified for such positions as multi-ship flight leads, package commanders and flight commanders, based on their added experience. That gives them a leg up for more important operational jobs, not to mention promotions.

But, it’s a bit of a stretch in comparing the training woes of UAV units to the German Luftwaffe of World War II. The German Air Force was forced to curtail training for a simple reason; it was attempting to support a multi-front war–and defend the homeland against an onslaught of Allied bombers and their fighter escorts. To support that requirement, the Germans needed every qualified pilot an operational cockpit and, quite predictably, training suffered. That’s one reason that “new” Luftwaffe pilots in the waning days of World War II entered combat with only a few hours of flight training. Most proved easy meat for their more experienced–and better trained–Allied counterparts.

So, any resemblance between today’s U.S. Air Force and the Luftwaffe of 1945 is purely coincidental. However, the UAV Wing Commander who made that comparison (Col Chambliss) is right about one thing: you can’t halt or curtail your training program without serious, long-term consequences. That’s why the Air Force would be well-advised to “bite the bullet” and create a separate UAV training unit, apart from the wing at Creech. Forming that type of organization would reduce pressure on the operational wing, and go a long way towards establishing drones as a legitimate career path for professional aviators.

As a part of that process, the service also needs to answer an essential question: is it really necessary for UAV “drivers” to be fully rated pilots? Under the current system, that means that every new Predator or Reaper jock has to complete undergraduate pilot training (UPT), and upgrade training for their particular type of aircraft before they master the UAV. That represents an investment of more than one year (and over $1 million), plus the cost of the drone training program–for pilots who will serve only one tour in a UAV squadron.

The answer seems obvious: create a specialized cadre of operators who will fly drones for extended periods–perhaps their entire career. And, taking a page from the Army playbook, most of the “operators” could be warrant officers. That would require the Air Force to restore those grades, but it would (largely) eliminate concerns about career advancement or time out of a “primary” cockpit, while ensuring that drone units had experienced aviators to fill line positions. Utilizing this approach, UAV units would still be led by commissioned pilots who advanced through the ranks, but had previous experience with a drone system.

But if the Air Force must modify its approach to training (and manning) UAV squadrons, then the Army–and DoD leadership–must also change their mindset. Obviously, platforms like Predator and Reaper bring a new dimension to the battlefield, and their combination of persistance surveillance (and limited strike capabilities) have saved American lives. But experience also shows that not all ground operations require UAV support.

In fact, one of the missions cited in the Times article–the hunt for IEDs–has proven to be a poor fit for drone units and their supporting intelligence systems. In a speech last summer, the former Commander of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command observed that Predator units had found relatively few IEDs, despite years of trying. During his address, General Ron Keys suggested that UAVs might be better used for other missions. In hindsight, Keys’ remarks were clearly an early response to the planned increase in drone missions. Obviously, ground commanders (and Mr. Gates) disagree with the general’s conclusions.

For the time being, it appears that the Air Force, the SecDef and drone “customers” have reached some sort of accomodation. There are no current plans to implement the “All In” strategy, and USAF UAV squadrons can support the current effort–at some cost in terms of crew training and rotation. But the long-term answer remains elusive. Ground commanders and senior DoD leaders want overhead surveillance on a grand scale–something that isn’t practical, given the numbers of drone and crews available.

At the same time, the Air Force wants a more limited UAV presence, allowing it to stay in the fight, with less impact on pilot training and rotation. But, given the demands of the current conflict–and the wishes of key Defense Department officials–that isn’t realistic, either. Instead, what’s needed is a realistic strategy for manning, training and employment of UAV units.

The notion that you need a fully-trained pilot to fly a drone by remote control is absurd–as is the idea of 36 continuous UAV orbits over the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. To ensure a proper level of support, the Air Force, its ground “customers” and representatives of the SecDef need to develop innovative solutions, ensuring that drone squadrons have enough pilots–and Army and Marine units receive the suveillance they need.

As a part of that effort, defense planners must also consider another, vital link in the UAV chain, namely the Distributed Common Ground Systems (DCGS) that process and disseminate information collected by Predator and Reaper sensors. Despite a recent DCGS “building boom” among Air National Guard units, the number of these systems remains relatively small. Limits on UAV ops are also a product of DCGS availability, manning and training. Any discussion about a viable plan for UAVs must address the DCGS aspect as well. We saw no mention of that element in the Times’ story, an omission that we find both curious and troubling.

ADDENDUM: It’s also obvious that Army demands for increased surveillance and control are nothing but a ploy for its own, expanded UAV program. While we have no quarrel with more drones for the Army (and other services), we think the rapid expansion of those units restates the case for UAV executive agent for DoD–with the Air Force the most logical candidate–and the need for standardization between DCGS units already in operation, and those being planned by the other services.

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