As the U.S. Air Force grapples for control over higher-flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), other services developing their own UAV programs are deeply concerned. The platform is growing increasingly popular throughout the U.S. military, which sees great value in unmanned flight. One branch seizing too much control over the innovative systems could prove counterproductive.
Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part look at U.S. Air Force efforts to assume control over unmanned aerial vehicles. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England is expected to announce a decision by the end of August whether to grant the U.S. Air Force "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 is seeking to control acquisition and development of all such systems. With each branch of service pursuing its own UAV development programs (sometimes in cooperation with one another), the Army, Navy and Marine Corps are deeply concerned. The Air Force may be a logical choice for coordinating important aspects of the various UAV programs — ensuring system compatibility across the services, the use of open-architecture software, the de-confliction of airspace. But unmanned systems are just beginning to come of age, and the true extent of their utility is still being explored. Giving one service control over higher-flying UAVs would limit the kind of branch-specific experimentation and out-of-the-box thinking that the technology needs in order to reach its full potential. By the time the first U.S. UAVs droned through the skies over Afghanistan and Iraq, many years of concerted research and development had already been done (Pioneer UAVs were used in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991). But the more useful the systems became, the more interest spread at the Pentagon, which now views the concept as having almost limitless applications. While much program development takes place below 3,500 feet (the Air Force wants to keep well away from the more tactical UAV missions), some of the most fascinating experimentation is occurring at higher altitudes. The Navy has acquired two Global Hawks and is currently exploring their applicability to "broad area maritime surveillance," a program that promises to provide it a revolutionary and unprecedented level of global situational awareness. A joint Army-Navy program that is now flying RQ-8B Fire Scout test beds could change the way the Army and the Navy do business (despite a rough development history and a troubled start). The Navy hopes to use them in conjunction with the littoral combat ship now being developed and could integrate them into everything from anti-submarine warfare to mine-hunting. The Air Force is attempting to consolidate control over UAVs for a number of reasons — some of them having nothing at all to do with UAVs per se and everything to do with the long-term future of the Air Force. And while some coordination and standardization is necessary across the services in the development and deployment of UAVs, each step in that direction will diminish innovation. No branch of the U.S. armed forces fully understands the true promise of UAV technology, which has only just gotten off the ground. But if the Air Force is allowed to consolidate control over UAV systems — especially based on altitude — then bureaucratic and organizational barriers will impede a broad generational leap in the technology for all the branches.