UAVs loom large in DOD future

Unmanned aerial vehicles performed so well during the recent conflict in Iraq that Defense Department officials are now eager to improve how the service buys and uses the technology.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Joseph Stein, director of aerospace operations at Air Combat Command, said unmanned aerial vehicles, particularly Predators, provided invaluable video feeds to multiple locations throughout southwest Asia and back to the continental United States.

"There was an almost insatiable desire of combatant commanders," for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance provided by Predators during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Stein said during July 15 remarks at the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International conference in Baltimore, Md.

He added that Predators were present during nearly all of the war's most famous scenes, from the bombing of time-sensitive targets to the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

Jim Thomsen, acting executive director of the Navy's program executive office, Littoral and Mine Warfare, said several unmanned underwater vehicles were used in the Middle East for everything from advanced sonar to mine detection. But he said DOD must examine alternate ways of purchasing unmanned solutions to retain its battlefield advantage.

"We're talking within the Navy and [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] about adapting acquisition policies to field these mission modules faster," Thomsen said, adding that acquiring unmanned solutions at the same time as ships would take far too long.

Military services must overcome other challenges as unmanned systems continue to play a greater role on and around the battlefield, said Army Lt. Gen. John Riggs, director of the Objective Force Task Force.

For example, DOD officials need to incorporate the technology into its established battlefield tactics and procedures, he said. They must ensure the use of a UAV will compliment, rather than duplicate, a manned mission. As the systems evolve, they must not become too expensive to risk flying, Riggs said.

James Roche, Secretary of the Air Force, also urged caution. "The more these systems work, the more some people come to the extreme conclusion of [removing] all crews out of cockpits."

Roche said there will always be the need for pilot judgment in certain situations and pilots still control all UAVs. The Air Force recently created new "combat systems operator" courses that ensure all navigators complete the same core training for manned and unmanned systems, he said.

The Air Force is not rushing to large-scale production of any UAVs because it's still too early in the technology's evolution. But, as the quantity and quality increase, so will the military's use of them, said Roche, who has been nominated to hold the same position for the Army.

Army Col. Bruce Jette, director of the Rapid Equipping Force in the office of the vice chief of staff, said that robots have been used effectively in Afghanistan and Iraq to search caves, tunnels and other possible enemy locations. His office can execute a mission within 90 days, but does not field a system unless an Army program manager decides the solution is needed across the enterprise.

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