Pentagon to Army, Air Force: work together on UAVs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told the U.S. Army and Air Force in a June 13 memorandum to get over their differences and work together to develop and buy Predator-class unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).

“The Army and the Air Force will pursue a common acquisition program for the Predator-class air system,” England wrote in the memo, which went to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the chiefs and vice chiefs of the services.

The Air Force and the Army have been bickering for over a year about working together on the Air Force’s Predator and the Army’s version, called Sky Warrior. Both are built by privately held General Atomics.

Northrop Grumman Corp., which makes the high-altitude Global Hawk unmanned plane, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. are all vying for a piece of the growing U.S. market for unmanned aerial vehicles.

England noted joint programs improve the ability of the services to work together and help save money, and said the services should take advantage of common development, procurement, sustainment and training activities, according to the memo, which was read to Reuters on Monday.

England told the services to present details of a proposed common program in August. “The presentation should identify and quantify efficiencies in acquisition, management, sustainment and training that would ensue,” the memo continued.

It also ordered the Joint Chiefs to study the mission areas for the Predator-class UAVs, and told the Army and Marine Corps to work together to develop a common vehicle for land use.

Col. John Burke, deputy director of Army aviation, cautioned that the Army and Air Force UAVs looked similar, but their command and control, ground support systems and the way they integrate with manned systems were very different.

But Col. Don Hazelwood, project manager for Army unmanned aerial systems, said Army and Air Force officials were now meeting regularly about the program: “There’s a lot going on.”

Fueling debate between the two services is a drive by the Air Force to become the “executive agent” for medium- and high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Army, Navy and Marine Corps officials reject the plan, saying it would hinder the way military commanders operate, and UAVs should be controlled by the military units that use them.

Army officials also denied a recent report about a mid-air collision of a fixed-wing airplane and an unmanned vehicle.

They said there had been only one mid-air collision with an Army UAV, despite the fact that over 1,000 such vehicles were now operating over Iraq and Afghanistan and had logged over 250,000 flight hours.

That one incident occurred over Iraq in 2004 when a small hand-launched Army Raven unmanned vehicle hit the tail rotor of an OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter and dented it. Since then, all medium- and high-altitude unmanned planes had been outfitted with transponders for better tracking.

By contrast, there had been 36 collisions with birds in 2006 alone, Hazelwood said.

He said the Army’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles has increased by 35 percent since January as a result of a surge in U.S. troops to Iraq, but officials were able to monitor and track manned and unmanned vehicle flights, artillery fire and mortars through 41 networked ground stations.