Aug 13 2007
By Shelby G. Spires
A fight between the U.S. Air Force and Army over unmanned aircraft, many managed by the Army in Huntsville, could endanger soldiers in combat, members of Congress and aerospace experts say.
Air Force officials have been pressuring Congress for the past year to give them control over unmanned aerial systems that operate above 5,000 feet. That would include the bulk of the five major unmanned aerial systems managed at Redstone Arsenal for the Army.
U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, said moving control of the majority of the military's unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, would be disruptive and possibly dangerous to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Every few years the Air Force makes a grab for Army aircraft, and I don't really know that it helps anything in the long run," Cramer said last week. "The Army already uses these vehicles, is adept at using them and managing them, and I see no reason to change that. Any decision would have to be carefully reviewed."
The UAV 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.
"I think this is a case of the Air Force having too much time on its hands," said John Pike, who runs the Arlington, Va.-based military think tank GlobalSecurity.org. "They seem to be striving for purpose as a military service and this is a way to go about that."
Pike said the Army has valid concerns about the Air Force attempts to grab the UAV work because it would give it another mission. "There aren't too many air forces left for them to fight in the air. They like shooting down other aircraft, and since that's not much of a 21st century mission, then UAVs would be the next likely job.
"The Air Force has traditionally been concerned about air superiority over a battlefield. That's how they make aces. You don't become an ace by dropping bombs on tanks and troops," Pike said.
Army leaders have said losing the UAV mission could endanger soldiers because of delays in Air Force close-air support to troops in combat.
"The service chiefs and our (U.S. House) committee met in a closed session," Cramer said, "and I asked them directly if the Air Force could perform as well and support troops on the ground, specifically Army troops on the ground, as well as the Army could.
"The Army and Marine chiefs said no, they did not believe it based on past performance.
"That's what my concern is ultimately. We have to make sure our resources in (Iraq) and around the world are used properly."
Cramer inserted language in the 2008 Department of Defense spending bill that would require the Pentagon to carefully review any decision to move Army management of UAVs to the Air Force.
The Pentagon spending bill was passed by the full House last week and now heads to the Senate for debate. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, plans to lobby to keep the UAV work in Huntsville, he said last week.
Shelby sent a letter on July 24 to Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England of his reservations about moving UAV control to the Air Force. Shelby said the move could both put a strain on the Air Force's ability to support Army troops in combat and could slow down development of UAV systems, while adding costs.
"Designating the Air Force as Executive Agent will undermine the joint progress made thus far and appears to create yet another layer of bureaucracy in the development and acquisition system," Shelby wrote.
The Army has five types of UAVs. In 2006, there were about 1,870 Army UAVs, and that number is expected to grow to about 4,200 by late 2008. Army UAVs are used mostly to spot enemy movements and roadside bombs.
The Air Force flies two major UAV systems known as the Predator and the Global Hawk. Both operate at high altitudes and carry a wide range of weapons to attack enemy armor, trucks and troops.