U.S. News

U.S. Army, Air Force clash over control of drones

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army took aim on Friday at an Air Force drive to take control of its growing fleet of drones flying 3,500 feet and higher above battlegrounds.

“Don’t get into the tactical (ground) commander’s fight,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of army aviation. “Don’t get into the way we do business.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley took the Army by surprise on March 6, when he asked the Defense Department to tap the Air Force as its “executive agent” for medium- and high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Putting the Air Force in charge, Moseley argued in a memorandum, would centralize purchases, standardize operations and control “ballooning” bandwidth needs to prioritize intelligence distribution.

“I request this action be taken soonest,” he said, vowing to put out within 45 days a comprehensive plan to optimize U.S. intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Remotely piloted vehicles, or drones, are increasingly used by U.S. forces for everything from full-motion video pictures to firing on-board missiles.

The Air Force is seeking nearly $13 billion to buy 241 such craft in fiscal 2008, which starts October 1. It is already the Pentagon’s executive agent for space. The Army, by contrast, is executive agent for ammunition, meaning it buys bullets and such for the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Mundt, briefing reporters, dismissed the Air Force initiative as “ludicrous,” saying it would force army commanders to surrender capabilities and then “compete to get that same capability back.”

“Why would I or any other service want to buy into that?” he asked. “A lot of us were just flat caught off guard. We never expected something like this was going to come out.”

The Army deploys more than 700 unmanned aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan and says it expects combatant commanders to rely on them increasingly for battlefield intelligence.

William Ackerman, an Air Force spokesman, described Mundt’s comments as “a bit perplexing” since, he said, the Army and Air Force deputy chiefs of staff for operations met Thursday to discuss working together on “a way ahead on this subject.”

Steven Zaloga, an expert on unmanned aerial vehicles at Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia, aerospace consulting firm, said the clash over drones was inevitable.

“It’s a new spin on an old controversy,” he said, referring to decades of disputes over control of certain warplanes. “They have to define the edges of their responsibilities.”