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The rapid increase in demand for long-duration intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, coupled with the Air Force's inability to meet that demand, has caused the Army to initiate procurement of its own extended-range, multipurpose, armed, "organic" unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that will operate independently from the joint force air component commander's centralized control or tasking authority. The author discusses the Army's decision to parcel out these assets to division commanders and questions whether organic Army UASs provide the joint force commander the best solution for achieving US military objectives.
"Grunt 21, this is Cyclops 55, ready for check-in," says the pilot of the US Air Force Predator unmanned aircraft system (UAS) over the radio.
Grunt 21, an Army ground unit in the combat zone, replies, "Cyclops 55, this is Grunt 21. Go ahead with check-in."
The pilot, located in a ground control station in Las Vegas, Nevada, says, "Cyclops 55 is a single MQ IB Predator, currently overhead at 12, 000 feet, armed with two Hellfire missiles, 21 hours of playtime, with infrared pointer and laser-designator capability. Sensors are on the target house, ready for situation update."
"Cyclops 55, Grunt 21 copies all. Situation update is as follows: the ground commander has been waiting two days to get AirForce UAS support over this target house. We plan to execute a raid in two hours. We are looking for a high-level insurgent commander and a weapons cache."
"Cyclops 55 copies all."
Just prior to the planned raid, the UAS crew hears a call for help from Alpha 6, an Army special forces team located 15 miles away from Grunt 21. "Alpha 6 is being engaged. Multiple friendlies killed in action. Requesting immediate CAS [close air support]!"
Knowing that troops in contact (TIC) are the joint force commander's ()FC) highest priority objective, the UAS crew immediately conveys the TIC information to the combined air and space operations center (CAOC) and the special forces operations center. The CAOC informs Cyclops 55 that, at three minutes away, it is the closest asset.
The CAOC immediately directs the crew to support the CAS request. Cyclops 55 informs Grunt 21 that it is leaving its station to respond to a TIC and calls the airspace controller to request immediate clearance at 12, 000 feet to the coordinates of Alpha 6.
"Cyclops 55, request denied. Army restricted operating zone [ROZ] Charlie is active directly in your flight path, surface to 25, 000 feet."
"Cyclops 55 is unable to stand by. We are responding to a TIC with US casualties. Need immediate clearance at any altitude!"
"Unable to clear you for that airspace at this time. I do not own that airspace. It was chopped to the Army earlier this morning, and the status is unknown. We are trying to contact the Army on a separate channel. Meanwhile, I will arrange a longer alternate route."
While working the airspace problems, Cyclops checks in with Alpha 6 for a situation update. With gunfire in the background, Alpha 6 reports, "We hit a roadside bomb and were ambushed by an unknown number of insurgents. We are taking fire and need immediate CAS!"
After 13 minutes of working airspace issues, Cyclops 55 finally declares "on station" and receives the target information from Alpha 6.
"Cyclops 55, this is Alpha 6. You are cleared hot. Danger close!"
"Weapons away! Sixteen seconds to impact."
As the missile destroys the target, the Predator liaison officer in the CAOC receives a message from the original Army unit that was supposed to have Predator coverage all day: "Cyclops 55, there is an Army colonel on the phone with the joint force air component commander UFACC], screaming about how you botched the entire operation by leaving his unit without his permission. He cancelled his entire ground operation because you failed to support him by departing your orbit ... again."
THIS SCENARIO HIGHLIGHTS UAS challenges in the joint operational environment. The rapid increase in demand for long-duration intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, coupled with the Air Force's inability to meet that total demand, has caused the Army to initiate procurement of its own extended-range, multipurpose, armed, "organic" UASs that will operate independently from the JFACC's centralized control or tasking authority.
Is the Army's decision to parcel out theater-capable UASs to division commanders the correct way to apportion the limited supply of these high-demand assets? Do organic Army UASs provide the JFC the best solution to achieve US military objectives? The Army's decision to develop and field organic theater-capable UASs is not in the best interest of the US military; however, there are ways to integrate these Army UASs into the joint operational environment.
UASs give the JFC the ability to gain situational awareness of the battlefield and simultaneously project power. According to one key document, "information is the key enabler to today's joint warfighter," and ISR is still the number-one Department of Defense (DOD) priority for combatant commanders. (1) UASs deliver real-time, full-motion video and signals intelligence directly to tactical users and strategic decision makers, while "maintaining a degree of covertness." (2) These aircraft have the unique ability to sustain long-duration missions (in excess of 21 hours) by changing crews in the middle of a sortie. They provide "unrelenting pursuit" of the enemy while reducing the time required to prosecute "actionable intelligence." (3) The JFC can wield this capability without air-refueling tankers or support from combat search and rescue. Additionally, most Air Force Predator crews conduct operations from the United States via remote split operations (RSO).
The Air Force's MQ 1 Predators and MQ 9 Reapers fly 24-hour combat air patrols (CAP), supporting the JFC in US Central Command's area of responsibility. Each CAP provides armed reconnaissance with full-motion video at a fraction of the cost of manned assets. According to the 4324 Wing at Creech AFB, Nevada, Predators and Reapers in 2007 and 2008 launched 247 Hellfire missiles (95 percent direct hits), dropped 71 bombs, supported 834 TICs, and provided armed ISR during 2,509 raids on enemy compounds in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, while burning less than four gallons of fuel per hour.' As demonstrated in the scenario that began this article, long-duration, centrally controlled, theater-capable UASs can also be dynamically retasked to …