UAV roundupU.S. military grapples with UAV control questions

Published 20 August 2007

As more and more UAVs are deployed in the theater, and as the military envisions a UAV-dependent future, the armed services are locked in a bitter fight over who will control these systems

A few days ago we observed that typically there are three indications that a segment of the market is maturing: There is a wave of consolidation, there are new laws and rules passed to regulate the segment, and there is a specialized service industry — lawyers, lobbyists, analysts — emerging to serve the players in the industry and those interested in investing in it. We forgot a fourth indication: Turf war inside the government over which agency will be in charge of ordering gear from and contracting with the sector. As the popularity of unmanned vehicles has grown, the FT’s Demetri Sevastopulo writes that such turf was is now raging in Washington. Reminiscent of the late 1940s battles over the unification of the U.S. armed forces, the battle is over which servie will control the procurement of UAVs, with the air force is pushing to become “executive agent” for unmanned aircraft that fly above 3,500 feet. The army, navy, and marines will have none of this, saying they know better what their UAV needs are. Gordon England, the deputy defence secretary, will make his decision soon, and the services are already coordinating their campaigns with their respective allies in Congress. The stakes are high, and getting higher. Central Command, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now operates more than 1,000 UAVs in the theater.

The very proliferation of UAVs has intensified the Pentagon debate over how these systems are acquired and operated. The air force argues there is a need to streamline acquisitions to reduce cost and duplication, and for greater standardization to improve interoperability and lessen the potential for mid-air collisions. The air force points out that it would have more sense procure more Predators to deploy in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than allowing the army to develop its own system, the Sky Warrior, which will not be deployed until 2009. “We can’t afford to compromise any longer, particularly when ‘compromise’ comes at the cost of inefficiencies and with no benefit beyond assuaging ruffled parochial egos,” says Lieutenant General David Deptula, deputy air force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The army responds in kind, pointing out that two air force systems, Global Hawk and Predator, have seen cost overruns. “The ruffled feathers and parochial egos belong to the air force … the marine corps, navy, special forces and army are co-operating across acquisition