A battle over unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is being joined in the hallways of the Pentagon. While the U.S. Air Force grapples for control over the acquisition and development of higher-flying UAVs, it also is trying to define its long-term future, which will not involve any seat-of-the-pants flying.
Editor's Note:This is the first of a two-part look at U.S. Air Force efforts to assume control over unmanned aerial vehicles. The U.S. Air Force is asking for broad "executive agent authority" over all U.S. military unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also called unmanned aerial systems) that fly above 3,500 feet. The Air Force wants control over the acquisition and development of all such systems. With each branch of service pursuing its own UAV development programs (sometimes in cooperation with one other), the Army, Navy and Marine Corps are understandably upset. More than a mere Pentagon turf war, this bid goes to the heart of the Air Force itself. Though human aviators will remain essential to the Air Force — and the U.S. military as a whole — for decades to come, UAVs promise to progressively overtake human pilots in more and more mission areas. The problem is simple. Humans are becoming the limiting factor in modern flight. The human body will be increasingly unable to endure the g-forces necessary to "jink" and evade the newest anti-aircraft missiles. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working on autonomous aerial refueling that will allow the endurance of UAVs to be measured in days and weeks rather than hours — far too long for a human pilot to stay aloft in a cramped cockpit. The Air Force is faced with the question: In a service that defines itself through its pilots, what is airpower without them? Indeed, as autonomous systems improve, UAVs will be capable of more missions once considered the sole purview of human-piloted aircraft. And the removal of the cockpit, ejection seat, instrument panel, flight controls and life-support system substantially improves aerodynamics and reduces weight, which can then be allocated to fuel capacity or mission payload. This is simply an inevitable evolution. Recognizing one's own looming obsolescence is not an easy intellectual exercise, even if the future is still a decade away. Though the Air Force has many missions that do not involve pilots — most notably satellite and ballistic missile operations — its raison d'etre has always been manned flight. Boil the Air Force down to one issue, one mission, and you can only end up in one place: the cockpit. So the Air Force is faced with the question: In a service that defines itself through its pilots, what is airpower without them? The Air Force will grapple with this fundamental and difficult question for the next decade. Institutional shifts — toward space, for example — will one day make the Air Force a different kind of service. But making a power play for control over UAVs — and the funding that comes with it — is hardly a sign of real institutional understanding of looming change. The true intellectual exercise for the Air Force is understanding that the latest F-22 Raptor stealth fighter is not the future of military aviation but the last gasp of its past. Along with the F-35 Lightning II, the F-22 will serve for decades, perhaps with great distinction, but it will be the last manned U.S. combat fighter aircraft. Its obsolescence was built-in, along with its instrument panel and flight controls. Next: Managing the Rise of the UAV, to be published Aug. 25.