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Applying UAV Lessons to Transform the Battlefield

Applying UAV Lessons to Transform the Battlefield

Remarks at Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, Baltimore, Maryland, July 15, 2003 by Dr. James G. Roche, Secretary of the Air Force.

Thank you Lew [Lew Goldberg, Vice President, AUVSI] and good afternoon. I'd like to begin my comments today with a story -- one that captures the essence of what it is that you do, and why it is so important. This story comes from an engagement in our war on terrorism, from a battle fought near the top of a 10,000-foot peak in Afghanistan -- now known to us as Robert's Ridge. On that day -- March 4, 2002 -- an Air Force Terminal Attack Controller and about two-dozen others -- Army Rangers and Air Force special operations forces -- were engaged in a fierce fight for their lives with Taliban militiamen. Their disabled helicopter marked the spot where the Americans were pinned down -- with little cover and fighting an entrenched, well-armed enemy. They were taking heavy, sustained and accurate fire. Several of their comrades lay around them dead or dying.

Worse still, they were running out of options. Two F-15E Strike Eagles and two F-16s had already strafed the enemy, and the F-16s had already dropped three 500-pound bombs -- virtually on top of the friendly position. But still the enemy fought on. With snow up to their knees, open ground between the enemy and their position, and seemingly no other means available to take out their adversaries save frontal assault, they turned their fate over to a weapon system about which they were unfamiliar and one in which they had little confidence -- the Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle equipped with two Hellfire missiles.

After calling for a test shot into the side of the mountain -- in fact, at a particular tree -- to confirm the accuracy of the weapon, our skeptical combatant commandos allowed the Predator pilot to fire his missile into the enemy position, less than 50 meters from their location. Just as the operator promised over the radio, he hit the target with deadly accuracy, destroying the enemy position and turning the battle for survival in favor of the Americans. For his heroism in this engagement, I recently awarded the Silver Star to Staff Sergeant Gabe Brown, an Air Force Combat Controller, and the airman who called for and controlled the Hellfire shot.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great privilege to be here this afternoon with the men and women of America who are responsible for conceptualizing, producing, and sustaining the unmanned systems our soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines rely on to accomplish their important missions. I'm also honored to share the stage today with the distinguished speakers who have offered a variety of perspectives on how we should develop and produce unmanned vehicles for the warfighter.

The story I just shared with you captures the essence of our views on how the technology of UAVs possibly can deliver vital capabilities to our combatants. The system that saved the lives of Staff Sgt. Brown's team -- the Hellfire-equipped Predator A -- was developed by warfighters for warfighters. It was delivered in record time using innovative new approaches to acquisition, training, and employment. And while this method involved varying degrees of risk -- in terms of technology, cost, and safety, and was bumpy at the time -- the end result, operational capability and decisive effects on the battlefield, clearly justified the new approach.

But more than merely providing an example of battlefield success or a method of acquiring new systems, this example provides a vivid illustration of what 'transformation' means to warfighters. Fundamentally, it offers an instructive example of how we should proceed in adapting our nation's military to the demands of the 21st century.

As most of you know, we've been engaged in a wide-ranging effort to adapt the Air Force -- and the Department of Defense -- to the era in which we find ourselves; to meet the threats we face now, and to be prepared to defeat those that will emerge over the next several decades. In the Air Force, we have been evolving our organizations, concepts of operations, and technology for some time -- all with the objective of improving our ability to generate overwhelming and strategically compelling effects from air and space.

The last decade of our history has been characterized by relentless adaptation -- developing skilled airmen, transitioning the latest technology to warfighting, and integrating our legacy and evolving capabilities to produce effects on the battlefield that our combatant commanders need. In Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan -- and in the skies over the United States -- we have validated these efforts, and have demonstrated to the world the incalculable worth of experimentation and innovation.

  • Obstacles to Innovation

But that is not to say we haven't experienced obstacles to change. My partner in leading the Air Force, our outstanding Chief of Staff General John Jumper, frequently tells the story of the challenges he faced in evolving the Predator from a reconnaissance aircraft into a system that could help us in many other ways.

When we first fielded the Predator, the intelligence community owned it. So in Kosovo, when the Predator found Serb forces in a village there, we'd have one of those frustrating, yet predictable conversations as we tried to come up with ways to make these new systems work for the warfighters. When they'd see a tank between two red-roofed buildings, the Predator pilot or systems operator would try to talk the eyes of the A-10 pilot onto the tank. But the people flying the Predator were not people who were schooled in close air support or the tactics of forward air control.

So, as John likes to tell it, you'd have this "dialogue of the deaf" between the Predator crew and the A-10 crew: "Sir, it's the tank between the two red roofed buildings." Of course, the A-10 sees 40 villages all with red roofs. The operator of the Predator is looking through a soda straw at 10-power magnification. He says, "Well, if you look over to the left there's a road right beside the two houses. A tree line is right next to that. A river is running nearby..." Forty-five minutes later, the A-10 might be in the same Zip code, but certainly hasn't gotten his or her eyes on the target.

After too many of these exasperating exchanges, John said, "let's put a laser designator on the Predator." The rapid-reaction part of the acquisition community came in and did just that. It took them just two weeks to put a laser designation device on the Predator. Then, we quickly learned how to do target designation and talk others onto a target.

As you might expect however, when the conflict was over, the tyranny of our acquisition process engaged again, and that laser designator came off the aircraft because it wasn't "in the program." Thanks to John's determination, he had it put back on, but not without difficulty.

Then he said, "If this thing can find the targets and can laser designate the targets, why can't it shoot at the targets? Let's put a Hellfire missile on it." Again the acquisition system rattled around, not because the system is full of bad people, but because the system isn't designed to be adaptive, innovative, nor is it designed to be fast. The stovepipes we create don't allow these things to happen easily.

You can predict what happened next: The team came back and said, "We can put a Hellfire on the Predator, but it's going to take about four or five years, it's going to be about $15 million to develop it, and it's all high risk." Of course, John said, "here's $3 million, take three months, get out there and make this Predator shoot a Hellfire." And, of course, they, along with Army colleagues in Huntsville (Ala.), did it. And I doubled the rate of production of the Predator-A, and decided that all of them would be built with wings capable of carrying Hellfire. And, yes, it worked. As a result, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen -- unmanned combat air vehicles were used for the first time -- and to great effect.

  • Experimentation on the Battlefield

We've learned a tremendous amount about this technology since the early days, and we're still learning. And we've worked hard to develop a variety of operational concepts for employing unmanned vehicles in warfighting. But, without the support and trust of our field commanders, we would not be where we are today.

(Former U.S. Central Command Commander) General Tommy Franks' trust was crucial to our progress. He allowed us to experiment with these systems in real operations, helping us learn how to use them in the harsh environments of Afghanistan, and allowing our operators to better develop the capabilities of the systems. As a result, what were previously thought of as the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," are now very effective in complementing our manned and space systems, and in producing desired effects on the battlefield.

I'm sure you've heard several anecdotes today -- and over the past few months -- of how well these systems have performed -- and how some of them developed innovative ways of working!

One of the best examples of effects on the battlefield is our effort to knock out Iraqi TV. As entertaining as Baghdad Bob was, it was really time for him to go away. So we found the mobile satellite dish that they had set up -- they put it on the roof of a building near the Grand Mosque in Baghdad. And, of course, we weren't going to use a 500- or 2,000-pound bomb that close to the Grand Mosque. Also, that satellite dish was parked about 150 feet away from the main Fox News antenna.

So, on this day, an F-15E pilot, call sign "Ivana," and her system operator were tasked to employ a Predator to take out the antenna system. She flew her aircraft into downtown Baghdad very slowly so as to be very quiet, and hits the antenna and its generator and structure with a Hellfire missile. Then she, in her own words, "Got out of there quick" -- at 70 knots! They not only took out the dish, but Fox News kept on broadcasting uninterrupted, and the Mosque was left unscathed. This is just one of many Predator stories from Iraq.

But while the Predator often gets the headlines, we know there were a broad range of UAV platforms and capabilities employed by all the services in Operation Iraqi Freedom. From strategic systems such as the Global Hawk to tactical systems such as the Desert Hawk -- used for Force Protection -- unmanned systems played an important role in a variety of missions. Global Hawk, flown with the arrow keys on a keyboard, did some very innovative work with our ground forces -- to the surprise of us all.

We have shown that less expensive, limited capability UAVs can leverage the power of network operations to accomplish complex and demanding missions. They have brought persistence to the fight -- the ability to operate for many hours without food, sleep or oxygen, unlike their human counterparts. And they possess a strength we like to refer to as "digital acuity" -- the ability to be every bit as sharp in the 30th hour of operation as at the outset of the mission. They have shown promise in a variety of missions, from traditional ISR functions and battle damage assessment, to interdiction under certain circumstances. They offer expanding opportunities for new and unique capabilities, and they offer an invaluable advantage, the ability to perform necessary missions without putting our warfighters into harm's way.

But here is where we offer a word of caution. The more these systems work, the more people jump to the extreme conclusion that we should take the crews out of all of our cockpits and make all aircraft unmanned.

Before we do that, we need to think long and hard about the wisdom of that approach. Do we really want to take the judgment out of the cockpit that is responsible for employing deadly weapons? There are still time lags in effecting vehicle control, and I don't see the speed of light getting any faster. Let's be smart about all this; there are situations where UAVs have comparative advantages, and others where on-board pilots are key to success.

We have a debate going on today about the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle. We frequently ask the question: "If it weren't for the novelty of not having an aircrew or pilot in it, would we even be thinking about this vehicle?" The answer for some designs is no.

Does that mean we shouldn't be thinking about a vehicle that absolutely advances the mission an order of magnitude but doesn't have a person or a crew in it? No. John and I envision the day when we'll have an ultra-stealthy vehicle that orbits over the battlefield. It will talk to the combat controllers and the people on the ground. The person on the ground will dial up what he needs and the dispenser up in the sky will put the desired weapon exactly where it is directed. That day will come.

But in order to invent that machine, it has to have the virtues we admire most in Remotely Piloted Aircraft. It has to persist for long periods of time over the battlefield and be able to survive. It has to be able to defend itself actively or passively, or at least have a minimum of help in defending itself. It has to be able to air refuel in order to get the persistence of the stealthy platforms we enjoy today. And, if it's going to air refuel, it had better carry enough weapons to be useful to the people on the ground because the minute we put air refueling, on it it's no longer a "razor blade" that we consider dispensable -- it will be expensive.

Fundamental to our way ahead is the belief that we should look at the development of unmanned vehicles and remotely piloted aircraft as a new form of airpower, not as a means of giving us capabilities we already possess, but without the pilots. We need to develop new capabilities that complement the advantages that manned systems bring to the fight, and we need to develop capabilities for UAVs without restricting our ideas to the limitations imposed by manned aircraft systems, such as G-force restrictions and environmental controls designed for humans.

Those are some of the issues that we have to think about before we jump to strategic-level conclusions and start reciting bumper stickers that sound good in the abstract, but fail in execution.

One important guide for our way ahead is the lessons we can draw from recent combat operations.

  • Lessons In Conflict Instructive -- If We Draw The Right Lessons

The business of drawing lessons from recent conflicts has resulted in a proliferation of organizations publishing what they think are the most important ones. While some of these could be construed as skewed -- or even biased -- there is one conclusion I would offer on which we all can agree. Potentially, the most instructive lesson to those of us charged with the organize, train and equip function, is that years of investing in the development of our soldiers, sailors, airman, and Marines; delivering technology we can employ to great effect in combat; and integrating our disparate systems into a joint warfighting team have been the foundation of our successes. As we think about the development of unmanned systems, we need to continue to apply these vitally important lessons.

One of the things we have learned is that our tradition of innovation has been strongest during periods between major conflicts, as we focus on the issues raised by our last campaign and the challenges of the immediate and distant future. Today, with UAVs and RPAs, we are applying this heritage of experimentation and innovation that was commonplace during the years between the two great wars. In the late 1930s for example, Wright Field had as many as 20 various kinds of similar aircraft -- the Curtiss and Boeing families principally. So did Maxwell Field in Alabama. Just as we hope to gain UAV operational and program lessons from the warfighters today, the operators in that era were given the opportunity to cull the designs through comparative flight-testing. Attributes of aircraft that were viewed favorably were retained. Those with serious flaws were abandoned, both without much reference of the decisions to higher headquarters.

The same spirit of interwar progress and innovation was evident in the last decade as we worked to advance UAV technologies. We rapidly integrated them into our arsenal, and we have accomplished the integration faster than many would have thought possible five years ago. We did so because we are capitalizing on the experiences and lessons learned by the airmen who are employing these systems in combat.

These lessons should guide our program decisions. For example, the current capability mix between the Predator A and B offers us exactly the kind of opportunity for innovation that we saw in previous eras. The "A" has been bloodied in conflict, and our operators are beginning to develop concepts of operation that are expanding the effects we can achieve. As we develop the Predator "B" -- our hunter-killer version -- we are in no rush to kill the "A." It has been operationally effective, offered a real-world laboratory for experimentation, and it remains the less expensive "azor blade" we want. Most important, the "A" has been the conceptual starting point for many of the innovations we'll incorporate in the "B" model. The"B" should not be just a bigger "A" model that flies faster, weighs more, and is twice the price. Rather, it should be dramatically different and used in circumstances that demand different capability. And the so-called limitations of "A" can be advantageous at times -- low speed; limited IR signatures; and it is quiet. Maybe we could use it as a companion to patrols in urban areas?

We are already making some necessary advances -- particularly with respect to sensors, communications, navigation, and weapons enhancements. But we need to add other capabilities as well, such as automatic targeting cuing. This can dramatically reduce the demands on human sensors and enhance the "hunter" capability of the system. In total, we should evolve the "B" and think of it as the forerunner of things to come in the future, and new UAVs/RPAs are on the way. Finally, in our view, we should not rush to large-scale production runs of some of these vehicles -- particularly since this could function as an obstacle to the innovation that has been so successful to date.

  • UAVs, RPAs, and the New Era

As the quantity and capabilities of UAVs and RPAs increase, a host of opportunities will open for a growing number of our airmen to be involved in these operations. As these systems become an increasingly integral part of our future force, we want to stress that the Air Force expects from its operators of weapons-equipped RPAs the same accountability with respect to the employment of weapons as it does from its crew members in manned platforms.

It is important to remember that even though these platforms are unmanned, people are still controlling them. RPA operators must attain the level of competence commensurate with the life and death decisions made in manned platforms. Regardless of the platform they operate, airmen require a basic skill set to fly, fight, and win in modern combat. They must possess excellent situational awareness, advanced communication abilities, mission management skills, knowledge of electronic warfare, and a calm sense of purpose in the air.

Recognizing these circumstances, we recently directed that the Air Force reengineer navigator training to produce airmen equally proficient in employing both manned aircraft and UAVs. They will be known as Combat System Operators. Those who complete this new training will fill traditional navigator aircraft assignments, battle management roles, or be capable of operating UAVs and remotely piloted aircraft. Since the basic skill set for all graduates will be the same, they will cross-flow and retrain among various manned and unmanned weapons systems throughout their flying careers. And, all will complete the same core training, wear the same wings on their chests, and share a common designation.

It is exciting to stand on the cusp of a new era in air and space operations and watch military history unfold before us. As these new opportunities unfold, they will bring revolutionary technologies into the mainstream of our operations. As airmen, we take great pride in ushering in the next generation of air and space combat capability. From the F/A-22 and new systems for combat and tactical air controllers, to the Predator and Global Hawk, to advanced space and ISR systems, Air Force technology and capabilities are taking a quantum leap forward. Yet, as we continue to blend the capabilities of new weapons systems into our concepts of operations, we remain acutely aware that our true strength comes from our airmen.

We are not in the business of building gadgets. We are working to develop military capabilities that ensure victory in battle. Our airmen deserve no less.

The postscript to the story of Robert's Ridge is instructive. Although we pinned several well-deserved medals on the chests of heroes from that engagement, General Jumper and I also had the solemn duty of presenting the Air Force Cross to the widows of two men who died on that mountaintop that day, pararescueman Senior Airman Jason Cunningham and Technical Sergeant John Chapman, a combat controller. Their memories, their service, and their loved ones demand that we get it right.

Thank you for all that you do for this great nation. May God bless you and may He continue to bless the United States of America.

Thank you very much.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).

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