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April 11, 2005

Cleared in hot...

Jim Dunnigan has a piece in yesterday's FYEO "Dirty Little Secrets" column that John forwarded to me. I was *not* impressed with his reporting and analysis. Dunnigan's words in Italics, my response in Bold.

American infantry are beginning to fear that the U.S. Air Force will take away their UAVs. And therein lies a very curious situation .

What an odd thing to say…but it gets better…a lot better…

After half a century of losing out to the U.S. Air Force in the competition for budget dollars, the American Army is making a major comeback. Ironically, it’s all about technology. No, it’s about the changing nature of warfare—a greater emphasis on urban combat—where the land force has the greatest role and technological research focus is being turned to meet the unique challenges therein…for now. And I, as an Air Force officer, welcome that…heartily. The emphasis is on winning and if the ground game takes front seat to win, fine. That said, if you look at historic spending areas, Congress have pretty much made sure the three main services have ALWAYS split the pie evenly. The air force has always touted its mastery of high tech as a reason to get more money than the army. Utter crap…and if ANY USAF officer goes after money just to stick his thumb in the Army’s eye, he should be separated. The Air Force has always campaigned for better technology to better fight the air war. The sky is, by definition, a technology-centric medium in which we fight. But the cheap and abundant technology has created new devices, namely smart bombs, UAVs and “smart binoculars,” that are putting a lot of airmen out of business. A very short-sighted look at the history of war. You know what put the most airmen out of business in the last two decades? The same thing that put soldiers and sailors out of business—downsizing. We have, therefore, come to rely on technology more and more to do what used to be done by more platforms and having the men to fly them. Make no mistake, our rapidly evolving weapons capabilities are definitely good things, especially when their accuracy reduces the chances of our hitting friendlies…but it also reduces our need to reattack targets, making us more efficient and able to service more targets per platform than ever thought possible…the ratios have effectively been reversed: now the question is not, “How many planes per target?” but “How many targets per plane?” BUT…what this author fails to understand is that we have been quite lucky in the last several years. No peer competitors challenge us today. That will change. Soon. Then we’ll see how many airmen (or soldiers and sailors and Marines for that matter) remain “out of business.”

Continue reading! The rest is in the Flash Traffic/extended entry.

Let’s start with the smart bombs. For nearly a century, if a soldier wanted a bomb delivered accurately, he had to call on a highly skilled fighter-bomber pilot to fly low and put that bomb on the target. Smart bombs changed all that, especially the GPS guided bombs (JDAM). Now all the guy on the ground has to do is use a pair of “smart binoculars” to; A-see the target in the binoculars, and B-press a button to activate the laser rangefinder to get the range, and C-also calculate the GPS coordinates (the binoculars also carry GPS). A cable runs from the smart binoculars to a radio, which, at the D-press of another button, sends those coordinates to an air force bomber 2-4 miles overhead. The coordinates are fed into a smart bomb, and E-the pilot pushes a button to release the bomb, and a few minutes later, the bomb lands on those coordinates. This procedure is putting a lot of air force pilots out of a job. That’s because this smart bomb approach doesn’t require a lot of highly trained fighter-bomber pilots. One heavy bomber (like a 40 year old B-52) overhead can carry several dozen smart bombs. All the pilot has to do is circle the battlefield and push the bomb release button when the G.I.s send up another request. And all the enemy has to do is set up one SA-10 battery and blow the shit out of that bomber in less time than it took him to write that paragraph. All smart bombs go into a dumb crater. Super.

We don’t use fighter-bombers JUST to drop bombs accurately…bombers can do that, too. Again, this guy is basing his theory (I think) and what he’s seen in the past. The reason fighters delivered then was accuracy, yes, but it was due to the threat. Fast-movers were what were going to go after Tactical and Operational-level targets up until the Soviet Union collapsed…bombers couldn’t survive the SAM threat and they still can’t, unless you’re talking the B-2…and they’re a limited, incredibly high-value asset.

Are bombers good for today’s scenarios? ABSOLUTELY! But (and this is a big “but”) we’re talking a low-threat environment here. A medium-to-high threat war will take a fairly eclectic mix of big and little iron-haulers that are stealthy, fast and maneuverable.

It gets worse. Traditionally, the guys on the ground, talking to the pilots overhead, where themselves pilots, spending a few years serving as a “Forward Air Controller” (FAC). The theory behind this was that, “it takes a pilot to know what a pilot can hit.” Made sense when pilots had to come down low and fast to drop a bomb on a target he might only glimpse for a few seconds. That’s not done any more. Actually, Jim, it still makes sense but not necessarily for the reason you cite. Granted, a combat aviator’s SA is higher than a non-aviator’s, but FACs do a lot more than just control air…they advise the ground commander on the use of air power. Pilots are pretty well-equipped to do that. That’s not to say someone else can’t, and I know a fair number of navs and even Tech Sergeants can do it, but theirs is a long hard road to hoe. The Marines recognize this and have the luxury of keeping rated officers in those slots. The Air Force has been forced to go another route as their pilot rosters have been thinned by cutbacks…force reductions so severe that they are now having trouble filling cockpits, to say nothing of FAC slots. It’s too damn hard, exposes the fighter-bomber to ground fire, and often puts the bomb on friendly troops. Nonsense. Utter crap. It was done in WW II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, and Gulf War II. Being exposed to enemy ground fire is called: “the risks inherent in attack operations.” You try to minimize them buit it sure as Hell isn’t a reason to not attack. And as for “often’—let’s see your numbers, Jim. And don’t forget to include the Blue-on-Blue Patriot kills, armor frat and all the other tragic shite that occurs in modern war. Sheesh. The smart bombs are a lot more reliable and accurate. The ground troops like that. So do pilots, Jim, so do pilots. Honestly. Much less “friendly fire” from above. And the smart binoculars do most of the hard work. No Jim, the Enlisted Tactical Air Controller does most of the hard work…he gets that piece of equipment out to the forward edge of the battle area, finds the enemy, tells the good guys above where they are and takes the responsibility for safe engagements before he pushes that data “send” button…all while staying alive, under cover and aware of the overall battle. The army wants to take advantage of this by using more FACs, and wants to train army officers and NCOs to do this sort of thing. The air force refuses. If by “refuses,” you mean the Air Force doesn’t physically have the people to do it, it takes about three years for a non-flying person in the Air Force to become proficient in doing it, and Congress won’t raise the manpower ceilings, then I guess you found us out, James. Curses!, Foiled again! A lot of bogus reasons are given. Such as; only pilots can do this right. Where on earth did you hear THAT from? Look up the job description of Air Force Specialty Code “1C4.” See “Enlisted Tactical Air Controller” above. That FACs must have a Top Secret clearance (knowing that all ground combat officers and and a few NCOs only have a lower Secret clearance). I spent two years as commander of all the FACs and ETACs in Europe…never…ever…did I need a TS clearance to do my job. I had it, but I never had to get it for any of my charges for them to support their Army units. The air force considers the army proposal to use computer simulations to train FACs as simply unacceptable. Really? Than why is Air Combat Command, the largest combat major command in the Air Force aggressively pursuing that capability, both for conventional and special ops Air Force personnel acting on the FAC/ETAC role? One of my former senior NCOs is now a contractor in Arizona who was specifically hired by a company supporting the Air Force Research Laboratory responsible for fielding this capability? The real reason is that army FACs means the air force could lose over 5,000 FAC jobs (many of them fighter pilots) and over a billion dollars from their budget. 5,000? 5,000?!? Where does THIS number come from? Trust me, if the Army wanted to take on the responsibility for integrating air power into their scheme of maneuver without Air Force expertise (the FAC’s job) and allowing Air Force pilots to release ordnance on the clearance of the word of a person (the ETAC’s job) with absolutely no air power background, fine…but Patton’s ghost would probably shoot the bastard that put that guidance into effect…and “Pete” Quesada’s spirit would have handed Georgie the pistol. Also unpalatable is the idea of some army sergeant sending orders to an air force pilot to push a button. Woo Hoo! You’re confusing Army officers with Air Force officers…we take orders from enlisted men all the time…they’re called “crew chiefs.” OK, I’m being facetious, but if I hear someone in trouble and I’m reasonably confident that he knows what he’s doing, I’ll /shoot to save his ass. I don’t care if he’s the Army version of Gunga Din the water boy, I’ll release on his command and my ego won’t even hiccup. But the army knows that they cannot make the most of the new smart bomb, and smart binoculars technology unless they have more FACs.

It gets still worse. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have finally come of age because of several new technological trends coming together. For example, cameras have gotten smaller, digital and more powerful. Model aircraft technology, long a commercial hobby kind of thing, has developed some very reliable and sturdy little aircraft designs. Computer networking has made huge advances, with wireless transmission of large volumes of data (like live video feeds from an overhead UAV, to a combat officer’s laptop below) easy and reliable. All of a sudden, every infantry company commander has his own little air force of mini-UAVs. Battalion, brigade and division all have UAVs as well. Larger and longer ranged ones, of course, but equally cheap, reliable and totally under the control of their army users. No need for the air force to run as many expensive aerial reconnaissance missions any more. This one really hurts, as the military first used aircraft for reconnaissance. Oh, Jesus, is this guy clueless. Look…organic recce Is. A. Good. Thing. Especially in an urban environment. The hand-launched drones the Marines use are really cool. But, again, he’s comparing apples and oranges. There’s a difference between Hunter and Global Hawk (the term “Global” might give it away, but I’ll explain for Jim’s sake). Tactical recce/surveillance is best controlled by the end user. However, the higher the operational level, the more sophisticated and hard to maintain in the field the collection systems become. Yes, they gather a lot of info (ELINT, SIGINT, PHOTINT, etc.) but they are delicate pieces of equipment that take skilled operators to fly and maintain…at a main operating base, usually. And they fly a long…long…long time. And they gather literally tons of data that has to be interpreted, collated and sent to hundreds of users. And what’s wrong with letting a drone hang it out to get the BDA (bomb damage assessment) instead of me? “Alone, unarmed and unafraid…well, two outta three ain’t bad” used to be the RF-4 pilot’s motto. Fighter pilots would rather be “traveling in packs, armed to the teeth, and scared shitless” (pardon my French) doing the killing rather than the peeping. UAVs for recce…and platoon-level tactical recce in a city at that? Knock yourselves out, dudes.

But over the years, the air force never really got the knack of customer service. The air recon photos too often didn’t get to the army commanders in time. Old think…now we can beam the stuff right to your Hummer, Jim. The army, with their UAVs, doesn’t care any more. But the air force is getting nervous about another budget cut to remove unneeded aerial reconnaissance aircraft. Hmmm, lemme see...the AIR FORCE retired the RF-4…the AIR FORCE retired the SR-71…the AIR FORCE, oh, never mind…

And just to add insult to injury, the army is arming some of its larger UAVs with Hellfire (and other) missiles. This has got the air force thinking about trying to invoke “The Key West Treaty” (a 1950s agreement by the army not to fly anything with wings, if the air force would supply all the air support the army needed.) The air force is reluctant to try that, as all those infantry officers would not let go of their UAVs without a big fight. And at the moment, those army combat officers are the heroes. Uh, Jim, John Jumper first hung a Hellfire on a Predator. You remember him, don’t you? He’s the guy in the blue uniform (royal blue, not Navy blue) in the well of the House during State of the Union addresses. He can do that in his capacity as Chief of Staff of the AIR FORCE. Oh by the way, if you’re interested in how he did it, call his office…he loves telling the story (I’ve heard it from him, personally). The Key West Agreement was a way to focus limited assets on widely diverse missions…and the participants had been intimately involved in a recent dust-up called the Second World War where the Air Force (then the Army Air Corps…but part of the Army in name only by the end of that conflict) did just that…and no, they weren’t controlled by the ground commanders…after Kesserine they were controlled by Airmen (ask Eisenhower’s ghost…he insisted on that). As for your last sentence, that is a repulsive thought and isn’t worth a comment.

So where does this leave the air force? In trouble, but not without a plan to turn it all around. The air force now proposes to take control of all UAV development. ALL UAV development. Nope. Some of the stuff is going from the Navy to the Air Force, but it isn’t the small, company/platoon/squad stuff at all. And trust me, you talk about the Air Force “taking over” anything with the now-all-powerful Army getting the budgetary upper hand? Please. And the Navy rolling over on maritime UAV development? Please! This means that the army and marines will pay a lot more, and wait a lot longer, to get UAVs that don’t do the job as well as the ones they are currently scrounging up on their own. An assertion at the very end of the article without a scintilla of evidence or fact to support it. A major bureaucratic fight is underway. It’s not much reported on, but it’s a matter of life and death for army combat troops. At the moment, it's even odds as to which side will win.

James…you have a future as a military commentator…with the New York Times.