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Saturday, April 17, 2010


Steve Cole reports:

When airplanes were invented, most nations assigned them to the Army (or Navy if they flew over water) as they were basically just recon and bombardment systems.

Many nations went on to eventually create separate Air Force organizations, Britain being the first. The US Army did not give up the airplanes until 1948, when the US Air Force was created. There was such a stink over the Army spending money to "duplicate" things the Air Force did better (but, the Army complained, never got around to actually doing) that the Treaty of Key West (between the Army and Air Force) resulted in a ban on the Army having any armed fixed-wing aircraft (or any of the larger transports).

This led quickly to a dispute over control of aircraft, and reflects a philosophical difference. The Air Force thinks it should control all of the airplanes (grudgingly accepting that the Navy and Marines can have some for their specialized needs) so that the large "pool" of transport and bomber aircraft can be used where needed the most. More than that, the Air Force wants the "pool of money for airplanes" to be controlled by then, for the same reason. The problem is, nobody agrees with the Air Force's idea of what's the best use, and everybody but the Air Force complains that the Air Force tends to use its airplanes first for its own needs. The Army gripes that Air Force planes are bringing luxury items (e.g., better food) to Air Force bases and leaving the Army without air-delivered supplies of essentials like ammunition and medical supplies. The Army complains that Air Force-controlled airplane money goes for fighters and strategic bombers (which don't do the Army any direct good) when the Army wants the Air Force to build more tactical bombers (which do things for the Army). The Army got so fed up with asking the Air Force for air support (and not getting it) that the Army invented helicopter gunships to fill the gap. This is an old argument between centralized and decentralized asset control, but that's where the conflict stayed from 1950 to 2000.

Now, that's changing, and the Army is back at work building its own air force of armed fixed wing airplanes. It's doing this by using unmanned drones for these jobs. The Air Force wants to control all of the armed drones so they can be assigned to the most important jobs, and the Army simply doesn't trust the Air Force's judgement about which jobs are important.

The Army has zillions of drones, but most of them are little Raven drones (about the size of a hobby airplane you can buy in a toy store) and the Air Force gave up caring about those once they were satisfied that these couldn't fly high enough to get in the way of real airplanes.

Then the Army started buying bigger Shadow-200 drones, which had more endurance. The Air Force objected, but lost that fight. After all, Shadows were not "armed" aircraft and did not violate Key West.

The Air Force had evolved its Predator drone into the larger and meaner MQ1-C Sky Warrior. These can carry Hellfire missiles, the same weapon carried by Army helicopter gunships. (Air Force fighters use the much larger Maverick missile, which is too heavy for helicopters or Sky Warrior. Either is laser-guided and both were originally designed to kill tanks.) The Army quickly went to the manufacturer and bought some "old design" drones, renaming them Sky Warrior Alphas, and using them as Predator Lite drones (sometimes with a missile or two). The Air Force objected, but the Army is doing most of the fighting and dying and has gotten its way, and besides, it mostly used the Sky Warrior Alphas to fire missiles at suspected roadside bombs, which were not targets the Air Force considered sexy.

Two years ago, the Army got some prototype Sky Warriors (the real ones, not the smaller Alphas) and sent them to Iraq, and last year it got the first production Sky Warriors and those are also in Iraq. More new-production MQ-1C Sky Warriors are being bought, and some will arrive in Afghanistan in a few months. The Army is issuing contracts and budget plans to buy hundreds of Sky Warriors.

MQ-1Cs cost about $8 million each. The Air Force says the money and drones should be handed over to the Air Force so that the funds and drones can be sent to the most important places. The Air Force notes that some Army drones don't fly or attack on some days, and says if the Air Force had them, they'd be busy all the time. The Army says that the "idle" drones are, in fact, on call just in case the Army needs them, and if it needs them, it doesn't have time to wait for the Air Force to decide if the Army mission is important. And too much of the time, the Air Force decides that the Army mission doesn't matter all that much.

The Air Force fought against this in the halls of the Pentagon, but lost the fight. (The Secretary of Defense even fired some Air Force leaders who fought the hardest against the Army getting armed drones.) The Army will keep its missile-armed drones, and has assigned them to colonels commanding brigades so that no bird colonel ever has to ask somebody else for a missile-firing drone to take care of some target he wants taken care of. The Army feels that things work better in the more intense world of ground combat if the colonel has a continuing personal relationship with the guys who fly "his" drones, just as he has a continuing personal relationship with the guys who command "his" battalions, operate "his" artillery, and serve as "his" engineers, doctors, military police, scouts, and so forth.

The Air Force remains furious, seeing the power and money it has controlled since the Treaty of Key West slowly oozing out of their hands. By 2015, the Army's air force will have over 500 heavy armed drones.

Sky Warrior Alpha weighs a ton. It mostly carries sensors, and has to be jerry-rigged to carry a missile now and then on one of its two rails. (Sky Warrior Alpha isn't a Sky Warrior at all, or even a Predator, but is based on the I-Gnat ER which is the older model that the Predator evolved from.)

The real Sky Warriors that the Army is now getting weigh 1.5 tons, and carry more sensors (300 pounds internally, plus 500 pounds of sensors or missiles on four external rails). Sky Warriors can stay aloft up to 36 hours, but rarely fly that long. The Army plans to give each brigade commander (a bird colonel) a Sky Warrior company with 115 troops and 12 Sky Warriors. Army doctrine will mean that a few of the Sky Warriors are permanently assigned to the lieutenant colonels who command battalions, establishing their own long-term personal relationships.

The Air Force is skipping the Sky Warrior to buy the much larger MQ-9 Reaper, which weighs 4.7 tons and has six rails. It can carry 1,500 pounds of sensors and weapons. The Reaper is considered a true combat aircraft, and can carry air-to-air missiles, 500-pound bombs, Maverick missiles (which have more range than Hellfires, and can attack more dangerous targets). The Reaper is considered a next generation aircraft and will replace A-10s and F-16s. The Army is quite happy with the smaller and cheaper Sky Warriors, and eventually, the Air Force is just going to have to accept that the "Key West Border" is between Reaper and Sky Warrior, not between helicopters and fixed-wing attack aircraft.