In other words, a power and money grab.
Senior Air Force officials are petitioning the Pentagon's civilian leadership to name the service as the Defense Dept.'s executive agent--setting requirements and standards as well as guiding development--for unmanned aerial vehicles as part of an effort to expand its core missions beyond the "silk scarf" force of manned aircraft.
The service also would guide development of this expanding and lucrative new technology. This is seen by both military and aerospace industry officials as part of a larger effort to position the service as the Pentagon's primary force for operational intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
While still in the initial throes of a dramatic 25% reduction of its fighter fleet, USAF officials are reinventing the service as the military's primary organization for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering, as well as the director for development and operation of unmanned surveillance and combat aircraft.
If successful, the move could provide the Air Force with substantial authority over the technology's growth as well as influence in making investment decisions as the Pentagon rapidly expands its fleet of unmanned aircraft. To the distress of some, this could include UAVs managed by the Navy and Army.
"Executive agent is not just a term that gets thrown around," says the Pentagon official. The executive agent role "potentially gives a service huge leverage over the other services," thereby fueling cynicism among the Navy and Army, the official added. "This would provide an inordinate amount of authority to one service in a big area where everyone is headed," said another government official.
For example, the Army, Marine Corps and special operations forces use UAVs small enough to stow in a backpack. Officials question how much oversight and control the Air Force should exercise over those systems. Moreover, requirements for larger systems do not always mesh among the services, and critics are concerned that the Air Force would intentionally or inadvertently undermine the needs of its sister services in the name of commonality and savings. The Navy publicly rebuffed a plea last year from then-Air Force Secretary James Roche as well as Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper to sole-source its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) needs to a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. The Navy's acquisition executive publicly appeared perturbed, called the Air Force suggestion "awkward" and later announced a competition for the work.
The Navy's approach toward BAMS, which has been delayed, could turn out to be a thorn in its side if the service is ultimately subjected to an Air Force executive agency role. The service has been widely criticized for a lackluster approach toward UAV development.
"The navy BAMS program was supposed to be the combination of manned and unmanned aircraft," the senior aerospace official says. "The Navy stole the money [and applied it to the manned aircraft] and deferred the unmanned adjunct. The Navy's track record with UAVs isn't good. The Air Force embraced Predator and Global Hawk and some of the advanced concepts, and its confidence level is up."
Translation: The Navy may have screwed the pooch by transferring funding, but no one trusts the Air Force to take all the other services needs into consideration when doing UAV.
The first Navy Global Hawk flew in October 2004.