Mar 24 2007

Air Force seeks UAV control

Huntsville Times

By BRIAN LAWSON

State's lawmakers fight to keep Army program at arsenal

The U.S. Air Force is arguing that it should take the lead role in running the military's unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, program, and members of the Alabama congressional delegation are pushing back.

Redstone Arsenal is home to the Army's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Product Office, which oversees the Army's UAV programs, and southeast Alabama's Fort Rucker is the Army's "Center of Excellence" for UAVs.

The office at Redstone employs nearly 250 people, a number expected to grow to 280 by fiscal 2010. Redstone estimates the unmanned airborne system industry creates more than $66 million in business in the North Alabama economy.

In a letter sent to Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, and U.S. Reps. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, and Terry Everett, R-Enterprise, argue against establishing an "executive agent" role for the Air Force for vehicles capable of flying above 3,500 feet.

The letter suggests such a move could come at the expense of the Army UAV program and the soldiers it supports.

UAVs are pilotless aircraft made in a broad range of sizes that serve combat, surveillance and communications missions for the military. For the U.S. Army, the role is generally in close support of ground troops, a tactical use. The Air Force UAVs fly higher, often with sensor payloads, and are generally considered strategic hardware.

The service branches are responsible for their own UAVs. Sources familiar with the discussions said the Air Force push has not advanced very far, but its timing reflects Congress' post-9/11 interest in expansion of UAV programs. The defense budget for fiscal 2007 sought more than $1.6 billion for UAVs.

The issue of establishing one executive agent was raised by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley in a March 5 memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, military service chiefs and key commanders. He suggested the Air Force was "organized, trained and equipped" for the role of executive agent for UAVs that fly above 3,500 feet.

The letter sent by the Alabama lawmakers, in response, questions whether the Air Force could manage both tactical and strategic aircraft and suggests that "tactical requirements for ground combatants will become a lower priority to the Air Force's theater and strategic-oriented requirements."

UAVs are being used by the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan and some 60 percent of the fleet managed at Redstone fly above 3,500 feet.

A similar push was made two years ago by the Air Force, but that effort was beaten back, and the center at Fort Rucker was created to assist in the development of UAV training, planning, doctrine and technology.