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USAF seeks control of aerial kill-bots

Pilots love drones? Something's fishy here ...

Everyone knows about the current rise of the aerial killer robot. These machines are now in operation across the US military, and have already reaped a deadly harvest in Southwest Asia.

But the big deathbot battle isn't, in fact, in Iraq of Afghanistan; it's between the various branches of the US armed services, regarding who will be in charge of all the new flying slaughter machines and spy-eyes.

The United States Air Force (USAF) has been engaged for at least two years now in an attempt to seize control of almost all US military drones and flying kill-bots. The USAF was arguably left at the starting line in this rapidly-growing death-tech arena, perhaps due to the natural reluctance of human pilots to see their jobs automated out of existence.

Both the US Navy and Marines have strong aviator subcultures, of course, and even the US Army has huge numbers of helicopter drivers, but only in the USAF is the aircrew dominance total.

USAF generals are often vocally sceptical about unmanned aircraft, and the USAF has so far failed to move forward with serious, heavy, jet-powered drone combat aircraft.

Even its prop-driven Predator-B/Reaper hunter-killer, thus far the heftiest aerial death-droid in operation, must be handled remotely by a fully-qualified human pilot and sensor operator.

One should note, too, that the USAF has an active force of just nine Reapers, in comparison to ordinary fighter jets numbering in the thousands.

Contrast this philosophy with the US Army's plan for Warrior robo-planes (pdf brochure), which like the Reaper are based on the original Predator drone. Warriors are intended to land and take off autonomously, and can fly missions largely on autopilot. Human operators will confine themselves to targeting weapons, interpreting sensor data and selecting routes - they won't normally be pilots, as such.

Similarly, Scan Eagle recce drones used by the US Marines and Navy can now be autonomously handled in groups by intelligent software. Completely hands-off, they can be told to sweep a given area. They can be informed of an important target - for instance a suspicious vehicle - using only a cellphone/PDA, and move in without further input to gather video and follow the target covertly.

A single Marine operator with relatively basic skills can potentially handle at least three Scan Eagles at once; if USAF Predators or Reapers were being used this would call for six people minimum, at least three of them officers with wings on their chests.

Likewise, the US Navy has recently awarded a contract for a full-sized drone demonstrator jet able to operate from carriers autonomously, and has already proven that Fire Scout robo-copters can land themselves on ships underway at sea.

There is no guarantee of any quick move to robot carrier wings in future, and the Navy pilot community may be harder to kill off than the Army or Marine ones, but on the other hand full-on combat drones may be the only way for carriers to survive. Current and prospective short-ranged seagoing jets might require their mother ships to move within range of a dangerous new generation of ship-killing missiles. If it comes to a choice between carriers with robot air wings or no carriers at all, the naval aviation community will probably swallow their bitter medicine.

Given this explosion of interest across the US services in drone aircraft, the USAF has launched a crafty push to regain dominance. It has been suggesting since at least 2005 that it should take over all drones operating above 3,500 feet. The USAF says this could allow consolidation and rationalisation to take place, saving US taxpayers money overall. Rather than separate Navy, Marine, and Army surface commanders having their own drone forces, the air force would allocate kill-bots from a central fleet.

In many ways, this mirrors the historical conflict within armed forces bureaucracies worldwide over control of manned aircraft; first fixed-wing ones, then helicopters, now drones. Generally speaking, most countries have developed a separate air force; but it has been normal for this air force to feel it should focus on "air-centric" missions such as strategic bombing, of which it should be in sole charge.

Air support for the other services has often been neglected, allowing them to retain or re-establish air arms of their own. Traditional fixed-wing pilots' disdain for helicopters, too - a syndrome which persists to this day - has tended to leave a large proportion of military helicopters in the hands of land or sea services worldwide.

To any student of historical interservice squabbles, the present USAF drone power-grab appears not unlike the Royal Air Force's move to seize control of British military helicopters in the 1950s. The arbitrary USAF number of 3,500 feet sounds a little like the famous 4,000 pound limit on all-up weight, above which the RAF felt that Brit helicopters should pass to RAF ownership.

The end result of that squabble was that most of the UK's troop-carrying helicopters wound up in the RAF. The air force couldn't be bothered to assign serious resources to this mission, and as a result Britain is almost unbelievably poorly provided with military transport helicopters - to the point where troops sometimes die and operations are often cancelled or curtailed for lack of them.

By contrast, hundreds of incredibly expensive new Eurofighter jets are now being delivered: more, in fact, than the RAF can actually man up on current plans. A mere five per cent of the projected Eurofighter acquisition bill would suffice to buy 50 new Chinook helicopters, almost tripling the UK fleet.

Handing over control of helicopters to an organisation which basically doesn't like whirlybirds has proved disastrous for UK helicopter capability. RAF jet pilots, as one might expect, have at best neglected and at worst strangled the rotary-wing fleet since it came under their control.

There might be a lesson about drones in there somewhere. Of course, for those fearing the inevitable day when the malevolent murder machines turn on their human masters in a terrible orgy of automated slaughter, control of the killbot budget by human pilots may be seen as humanity's only hope. ®

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