May 01 2008

Iraq heats up military rivalries


By Jen DiMascio

The war in Iraq has spawned a violent Shiite-Sunni showdown there and a rift between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill — and now it’s heating up the long-simmering rivalry between the Army and the Air Force and their powerful patrons in Congress. 

A showdown is brewing, as the Senate Armed Services Committee kicks off the annual defense appropriations cycle this week. The issue is money and the control of production and basing for the unmanned aerial vehicles that are becoming central to U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the subject of an increasingly heated tug of war between the military services.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told future Air Force leaders last week it was “like pulling teeth” to get unmanned aerial vehicles into Iraq and Afghanistan. But criticism of the Pentagon’s use of UAVs extends well beyond the Air Force. All the services have flying drones that shoot video images and fire missiles, and the Pentagon has drawn flak from the Government Accountability Office for failing to coordinate the use or production of the aircraft or crafting a clear plan for their future deployment.

The looming congressional fight comes as each service tries to keep its own fleet of UAVs, as do members of Congress in whose districts the vehicles are manufactured and based. That tension is pushing the internal Pentagon tug of war into powerful circles on Capitol Hill. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) has taken up the Air Force’s cause; Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the Army’s.

The stakes are high, as there is already an uptick in requests for UAVs this year. Of the 93 aerial vehicles in the Air Force budget, 52 are unmanned. In March, the Defense Department amended the Army’s request for war funding this fiscal year, pulling money for trucks and radios and adding money for surveillance equipment and money to speed the production of the new Warrior UAV.

More may be in the works. Last week, Gates said he had created a task force for UAVs modeled on one that coordinated the purchase of about $20 billion worth of mine-resistant vehicles last year. The new group is scheduled to brief Gates next week.

The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, is continuing to seek control of unmanned vehicles. Dorgan has helped Moseley press his case in the past. Last week, he noted that Grand Forks Air Force Base, in his home state of North Dakota, is preparing to welcome a fleet of UAVs. Dorgan met with Moseley to urge him to base the new fleet of aerial refueling aircraft there.The Air Force Association said Gates could not have been referring to the Air Force when he decried the use of UAVs in Iraq.

“It was clear to us that he was talking about the Army, or he was making a mistake,” said the Air Force Association’s president, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Dunn.

Dunn’s statement sent a buzz through Army circles, but its response and that of its surrogate, the Association of the U.S. Army, has been deliberately muted. The Army association simply issued a statement spelling out the Army’s contributions to the war. 
“We elected to let it go,” said a senior Army official.

Shelby, who last year blocked Moseley’s bid to become the “executive agent” for UAVs and added a provision to last year’s appropriations bill to ensure the Army would continue to purchase its own UAVs, publicly acknowledged the tension between the services.

“Our top military priority should be the success and safety of our troops, and I am always concerned when service rivalries threaten the cohesion of our deployed forces,” said Shelby, who represents the state where the Army manages its UAV programs. “I continue to support the Army’s efforts to use their effective and combat-proven tactical UAV assets on the battlefield.”

In the midst of the tiff between the Air Force and the Army last week, the Navy awarded a $1 billion contract to Northrop Grumman for UAVs in the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program, making them a more active player down the road.

The difficulty for Moseley is that he’s carrying extra baggage into the fight.

Gates’ speech last week also came after the Defense Department’s inspector general found that a two-star Air Force general steered a $50 million multimedia support contract to a company led by a man with long-standing ties to the service. That hit followed reports of security lapses resulting in nuclear fuses being shipped to Taiwan, and the “bent spear” incident in which nuclear warheads were mistakenly sent unsecured between domestic Air Force bases. And this isn’t the first time Gates has publicly repudiated the Air Force’s investment decisions.

Part of the Air Force’s problem, in the eyes of the Pentagon and many critics, is that the Air Force is too devoted to stealth fighter jets — the F-22 Raptor — when it’s asking for $20 billion more than its budget request to upgrade its fleet and has made cuts to surveillance and radar programs that could help in Iraq.

The Air Force contends it needs the Raptor to face threats from “near peer competitors,” a phrase frequently used by those in the military as a euphemism for China. Stopping the purchase of Raptors now would leave the Air Force with nearly 190, but that wouldn’t be enough for all of its fighter jet squadrons, Dunn said, adding that if Pentagon civilians were so opposed, they should have made a clear decision about the program’s future.

The Pentagon did pass on the opportunity to kill or continue the Raptor in this year’s budget. The production line will close next year without continued orders, and the Pentagon provided in its budget neither money for Raptors nor money to close the line.

That leaves saving the Raptor this year up to Congress, and the Air Force has strong support on Capitol Hill to do it. Support for future purchases of the plane will be driven by a pair of Georgia Republicans, Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Rep. Phil Gingrey.

But in his speech last week, Gates hinted at a new way ahead for the Air Force’s fighter fleet. He suggested that the Air Force partner with other nations to build its fleet the way the Navy has worked with allies to establish a “thousand-ship navy.”

“I ask you to think through what more we might do through training and equipping programs or other initiatives to enhance the air capabilities of other nations,” Gates said, “and whether, for example, we should pursue a conceptual hundred-wing air force of allies and partners to complement the thousand-ship navy now being leveraged across maritime commons.”