Thursday, October 04, 2007

Don't Fight For Shrinking Market Share

Our Air Force is superb and must retain its superiority over any potential enemy.

But the Air Force is being ridiculous in fighting to control UAVs that the Army and Marines are using right now. The Air Force lost one round:

The battle for control of military UAVs in the United States is over, and the U.S. Air Force has lost. The USAF attempted to gain control of UAV development for all the services. Naturally, all the other services, especially the army and marines, violently pposed this move.

What are they thinking? This article in defense of the Air Force position provides some clues:

One of the Air Force’s primary functions, specifically tasked by the Defense Department, is to “organize, train, equip and provide forces for close-air support and air logistic support to the Army and other forces, as directed, including ... aerial photography, tactical air reconnaissance and air interdiction of enemy land forces and communications.” Tactical air reconnaissance is a part of the Air Force’s job.

With the advent of technology that enables the arming of UAVs, their ownership and operation become even more controversial. With their enhancement of range, loiter time and lethality, have UAVs outgrown the Air Force’s job?


Um, this is exactly why the ground forces should control UAVs that the ground units can launch and operate themselves. Technology is allowing even grunts to do jobs that once required a separate service. This is good.

The Army started an Army Air Force to provide the support that Army units couldn't provide on their own--firepower and scouting. (Heck, originally it was the Signal Corp that started it. Am I whining abou that? No.) The Air Force eventually became independent and there continued to be a struggle between supporting ground troops and the Air Force preference for strategic warfare away from the mud. Though I do not deny that the Air Force has done a tremendous job of supporting the ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, precision rockets and soon artillery will routinely be able to provide the precision strike capability in direct support of troops in combat that the Air Force once monopolized.

And cheaper air assets will reduce the value of air ground support--both Air Force fixed wing and Army and Marine helicopters. This is how the Army is using UAVs:

The U.S. Army currently has some nearly 2,000 RQ-11 Ravens, with over a thousand on order. The Raven is usually used by an infantry company commander. This means that each infantry battalion could have as many as nine such UAVs available. This is a significant reconnaissance force for infantry units that, a decade ago, were dependent on separate army aviation battalions, or the air force, for air reconnaissance. Now front line infantry commanders have their own air force, and this is revolutionary.

Do you see the Army artilley branch in a pissing match with Army line units because they have organic mortars? Or grenade launchers? Organic fire support is not a bad thing and the Artillery guys don't get worked up over it. Are Army and Marine helicopter units protesting that line unit UAVs take away their recon missions? No! Good grief, should ground units be forbidden from taking binoculars to hill tops because they'll see farther and interfere with the Air Force mission of providing tactical reconnaissance? I hope the answer is obviously negative.

The Air Force insists that anything with wings belongs to them. But the more that a ground combat unit can do for itself efficiently and effectively, the better it will be in combat. So what if each Army or Marine unit effectively has its own little air force? They need the strike and observation capabilities that little air force provides. These capabilities make our ground units far more effective.

And that little air force wouldn't have been built if the Air Force had provided what the ground forces needed when the ground forces said they needed it--and not when the Air Force judged the request was worthy. Heck, the Marines have their own air force with actual piloted planes to directly support their units!

We need an Air Force unmatched by any potential enemy. But we don't need an Air Force fighting for jobs that the ground forces can do. We need an Air Force to do what an Air Force alone can do well:

I think the Air Force needs to go up to space and let the ground guys take over the aerial missions needed to directly support the troops.

Air superiority (including counter-air missions against enemy airfields), space control (both offensive and defensive), ICBMs, air transport, and electronic warfare should be the Air Force missions. Missions that are directly in support of ground forces should be controlled by those services with either helicopters or UAVs.

Science fiction calls space assets "ships" but there is no reason we must have a space navy in the future. Aim high, Air Force. Space Force has a nice ring, too.

I should have added deep interdiction and strike missions beyond the range of ground force UAVs or tube and rocket artillery. I did assume that mission as one beyond ground unit capabilities. But the point is that the Air Force has plenty of missions and potential missions that nobody else can do.

We need a space service. There are rumors of machines that could take the Air Force into space. But if the Air Force blows its opportunity to aim high, another perhaps independent space service will eventually be created. And the ground forces will take the missions the Air Force blindly insists on trying to keep when technology is putting many of those missions in equipment that fits in rucksacks.

There is an expanding market in the air and the space above it, and a shrinking market near the ground. The Air Force has long resisted the ground support missions in favor of strategic missions. Now the Air Force is recanting?

The Air Force is foolish to fight for a disappearing market for their ground support services.

Aim high, Air Force. That's your future. And we need you there, dominating the new high ground.