By LOLITA C. BALDOR, AP, SFGate.com, July 5, 2007
The use of unmanned aircraft in Iraq has surged by nearly a third since the buildup of U.S. forces began this year, and drones are now racking up more than 14,000 hours a month in the battlefield skies.
The increase in unmanned aircraft — from high-altitude Global Hawks to short-range reconnaissance Ravens that soldiers fling into the air — has fueled a struggle among the military services over who will control their use and the more than $12 billion that will be spent on the programs over the next five years.
The Air Force wants to take over development and purchasing of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), arguing that it would save money and improve technology and communications.
It also wants more centralized command of the drones, saying better coordination could eliminate airspace conflicts that can endanger U.S. troops.
The other military services see a power grab, and they're fighting it.
A little more than a year ago, about 700 unmanned aircraft were operating in Iraq. By last December, according to Army data, that number had grown to about 950, and it's expected to soon hit 1,250.
At least 500 are the smaller Ravens that are used by the Army. The rest include Hunters and Shadows — the Army's medium-altitude aircraft that can carry weapons — as well as the Air Force Predators, which are also armed. Larger Global Hawks are used for high-tech surveillance.
The boost has been caused in part by the military buildup ordered by President Bush to help secure Baghdad and the Anbar province. U.S. forces in Iraq have grown by nearly 30,000, to a total of 157,000.
The Air Force argument for more central control over how and where the larger, medium-to-high-altitude drones are used would affect aircraft flown generally above 3,500 feet.
The Army is opposing the plan. Army officials say unit commanders need to be able to quickly deploy drones, and any additional bureaucracy could cause risky delays.
To illustrate, Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, the Army's aviation director, turns to a dark, middle-of-the night video taken in May by an Army drone over northern Iraq.
Two armed men can be seen apparently planting roadside bombs. As the unmanned aircraft tracks them, U.S. commanders dispatch an attack helicopter team. Just 16 minutes after the drone first observed the activity, the helicopter's 30 millimeter canon fires, taking out the insurgents.
"This is all going on in real time. You can't plan this in advance. And this is not the only event going on, we've got hundreds of these going on all day," said Mundt.
If the Air Force plan is adopted, he said, it could delay access to drones and compromise the unit's response.
Not so, says the Air Force, arguing that lack of central control can endanger U.S. troops, too.
Drones would still be available for commanders who need them, but it's important that priorities be set by a joint air command, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, vice commander of the Air Intelligence Agency.
According to a November study, he said, there have been many cases where U.S. forces could not respond immediately to mortar attacks because a drone had been launched in the area, triggering air space restrictions. He did not provide additional details on the incidents.
"I think there has been some confusion as to what it is the Air Force means," said Jouas. It's about giving the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines "a better product to support them in the fight. It's not about taking UAVs away from the soldier or the Marine."
Air Force officials say their proposal will save millions of dollars, improve the systems and ensure the aircraft have compatible communications systems.
The funding change is critical, Jouas added, as a way to save money.
As an example, he said that instead of awarding a new contract for the Army's Sky Warrior program, the Pentagon could have worked with the existing, and similar, Predator program. Doing that, he said, could have saved between $400 million and $600 million.
The Army's Mundt, however, said his service had a competitive bidding process and the Sky Warrior was selected.
Pentagon leaders, including Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, are pressing the services to hammer out a compromise. And Navy Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met last week with other top brass to review the Air Force plan, including England's June directive that the services work together more on the Army's new Sky Warrior program and the Air Force's long-standing Predator program.
But finding common ground has proven difficult.
The Pentagon's 2008 budget calls for spending nearly $900 million for five pricey Global Hawks, almost $70 million on 300 Ravens, and close to $700 million on research, development and procurement of two dozen Predators, four Reapers and a dozen Sky Warriors.
The Air Force's central control plan would involve the larger drones and not affect the small, shoulder-launched Ravens, which soldiers can send into the air for shorter range, lower altitude surveillance and reconnaissance.
All four military services are pursuing plans to buy more unmanned aircraft. The Army and Marine Corps are looking at buying the new Sky Warrior, which is touted as being more lethal than the Predator. It could carry four Hellfire missiles, while the existing Predators generally carry two. The two aircraft are built by the same company, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, based in California.
The Navy is looking into a new helicopter-like drone that can take off and land vertically on ships.
The Air Force, meanwhile, is investing $13 billion to buy 241 drones, including Predators, Global Hawks and Reapers, over the next five years.
Gen. Michael Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, said one goal is to set up 21 orbits of continuous unmanned aircraft coverage in the Central Command region, which includes Iraq. Currently, he said there are about 10.
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