AF Brass Bristle at Drone Decision

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The Pentagon's number two official tried to throw cold water on this cat fight, but it seems that the fur is still flying.

On Sept. 13, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England forwarded a memorandum to the service chiefs and top Pentagon officials rejecting a recommendation that the Air Force be the central authority for high and medium-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles.

Air Force brass figured since they do most of the flying these days, the atmosphere - and most everything in it - should be their domain.

But over the last several years the Army has expanded its use of UAVs - particularly medium altitude ones - and they were dead-set against letting their sister service tear control of those assets out of their hands.

What England did was to shift oversight responsibility to the Pentagon, convening a task force that will examine UAV issues and map out a coherent strategy for all the services to develop drone needs, missions and systems, so resources aren't wasted and there's better coordination.

But that doesn't sit well with some top Air Force commanders who see this as more of the same.

"A committee has often been described as a cul-de-sac down which good ideas are lured and then quietly strangled," said Gen. Ronald Keys, commander of Air Combat Command, during a panel discussion with top Air Force generals in Washington.

"My thought is let's put somebody in charge of this, let's hold him accountable, and let's see if he can't sort this out," he said.

The Air Force's top general was more diplomatic in his criticism, arguing that England's decision is still new and a lot could come of the task force developing the UAV roadmap.

"There has to be a better way to do this," said Air Force chief, Gen. Michael "Buzz" Moseley. "I'm not unhappy with the steps that [England] has made in these first steps. There are more steps to go."

Moseley pointed to the need for an overall concept of operations, standardization in how to communicate and guide UAVs, a coherent way to manage all the drones flying around the battlefield and what will be needed to protect drones from an increasing air defense threat.

"This is a recognition of the environment that we have identified as Airmen because this battlespace is something we are very familiar with," Moseley added.

Drones have become an increasingly important part of military operations over the last decade. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the need for pinpoint surveillance of enemy activity, given the rugged terrain and inner-city warrens insurgents covet.

The explosion of unmanned systems has led to the recent debate over control of the drone fleet, a matter of particular worry to the Air Force which is concerned that the growing swarms of UAVs could endanger their manned and unmanned planes.

On the other hand, Army officials are reluctant to cede control of their drones for fear they won't be distributed overhead where they're needed most by commanders in combat.

"Now we're in a situation where the Army and the Air Force are essentially competing for production of UAVs. And that's not good," Keys said.

Nevertheless, the Joint Requirements Oversight Council - a Pentagon panel that advises civilian officials on the overall needs of the services - recommended this summer that the Air Force assume the role of "executive agent" for UAVs.

Then England stepped in.

"There's more work to be done; more demonstrating competency to be done; better work on defining requirements; better work on defining capacity. That's ahead of us," Moseley said.

It is unclear how this debate will eventually shake out. With the separate reports that need to be issued, the coordination of procurement and the development of an overall UAV architecture for all the services, there will certainly be more inter-service jockeying as the plans take shape.

"I'm not sure we don't know where every convoy is ... and whether I've got [surveillance] assets in the right place to see what needs to be seen before they drive into an ambush," Keys said. "That's what an executive agent works through to provide the capability to connect all these things."

-- Christian

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