09 May 2006

The Pentagon Politics Of Combat Drones

Defense Tech details the procurement battles over unmanned combat aircraft. Cliff Notes version:

The Air Force is looking for something unmanned to replace its long range bombers (the B-1, B-2 and B-52) for which existing drone projects were not suitable. Also, many within the Air Force are worried that it would render the F-35 (aka the Joint Strike Fighter) obsolete, at least for small, modest range bombing missions, because a drone puts fewer lives at risk, is more stealthy an F-35 and is just as good if the mission simply involves dropping a bomb at GPS specified coordinates. Meanwhile, the Navy is looking for something that would fulfill some of the higher risk missions currently assigned to the F-18 and planned for the F-35C, like dropping bombs when there is still potentially anti-aircraft fire from the ground.

The joint combat drone program had involved two similar drones, the X-45 (the primary program favored by the Air Force) and the X-47 (the backup program favored by the Navy) before it was cancelled. The X-45 looks dead for good. The X-47 may live in the form of a carrier based Navy combat drone program that is a sucessor to the joint program.

UPDATE: The Air Force also appears to bear responsibility for an effort to strip the Army of funding for a STOL intratheater transport plane smaller than the C-130. Such planes have cargo capacities similar to Army transport helicopters, but are cheaper to buy, have longer range, are faster, and are less tempermental. Among their important roles would be transporting small loads between forward operating bases. Existing Army C-23 Sherpa planes and C-12 Huron planes which fit that description and are currently being used for that purpose are wearing out.

The Army has concrete plans to field a replacement by 2008, something possible because there are two commercial off the shelf designs already available, the C-27J Spartan built by Lockheed, with an eye towars commonalities with the C-130 but about something a bit more than a quarter of its cargo capacity, and used by many of our allies (Bulgaria, Italy, Greece and potentially Canada, Portugal and Australia), and the C-295 made in Spain and used by Switzerland, Poland, Venezula, Brazil, UAE and Jordan, as well as Spain, with about three-quarters of the capacity of a C-130. (Can anyone guess who has the political edge in that bidding contest?) The Air Force has pie in the sky plans unlikely to come to fruition until, at least, a couple of years later.

The commentary provided by Defense Tech contributor Jimmy Wu on allocation of responsibilities between the Air Force and Army, called the Key West Agreement, is on target when he states:

We need to abolish the Key West Agreement. Obviously, the Air Force has no institutional interest in either the CAS [i.e Close Air Support] nor intra-theater lift functions. The Air Force needs to get out of the way and give A-10s to the Army. The Air Force needs to stop stalling JCA [i.e. the sub-C-130 Joint Cargo Aircraft] and let the Army buy as soon as possible. The Air Force can get in on the order later after it has completed its requirement process. Afterall, the AF is already using the C-130 to fulfill most of its intra-theater requirements anyway. The Army has a war to fight and the institutional Air Force needs to understand that.

Indeed, I think that even this may not go far enough. It may be time to rethink the National Security Act of 1947 which created an Air Force separate from the Army.

For example, the U.S. might replace its current four service structure, with a six service structure based on mission rather than type of weapons used. Thus, the U.S. could have a Strategic Warfare Service, in charge of nuclear missile submarines, ICBMs and long range bombers, a Special Forces Service absorbing existing forces of that type and covert action roles now undertaken by the Defense Intelligence Agency, a Rapid Reaction Service, charged with filling the kind of roles now filled by paratroopers and Marine Expeditionary units, a Peacekeeping Service devoted to peace keeping and counterinsurgency missions, and a Conventional Warfare Service devoted to conventional warfare against well equipped opponents like Russia and China, which would inherit most of the Navy's surface combatants, attack submarines and aircraft carriers, must of the Army's heavy armor and artillery resources, much of the Air Force's fighter resources.

If jointness is more than a buzzword, and it should be because joint operations are key to the modern military, it should be implemented institutionally, and not just on paper and in occassional exercises.

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