Despite a touch of illness during the conference--my system apparently can't process American food any more--I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and learned quite a few interesting tidbits about the wild world of drones.
• Unmanned Aerial Systems represent the largest field of personnel growth within the US Army Aviation branch. Of nearly 4,000 new positions within Army Aviation units, nearly 2,400 will be UAV operators, maintainers, or coordinators. In fact, the field is expanding so rapidly that there's currently a 14-month waiting list for some UAV courses.
• The legendary fighter pilot and strategist John Boyd was known to say, in regards to force structure, "people, organizations and equipment..in that order". Nowhere is this more true than in, surprisingly, the "unmanned" community. During a conversation with an Australian colonel, I discovered that the Australian Army had, for years, been having a degree of difficulty task-organizing its fleet of small, tactical UAVs. Much like the British Army, many felt that UAVs were an asset designed for use by field artillerymen for spotting purposes (plus, artillerymen seem to be idle hands these days). However, such an arrangement often ran into difficulties in training, standardization, and airspace deconfliction--quite perilous on a modern battlefield, where airspace is congested enough as it is. Thus, the Australians took a cue from the US, and began to view their UAVs as aviation assets.
Nevertheless, the conference didn't really adequately address the proper proponent for UAV proliferation. Though the Army Aviation Association of America states, quite emphatically, that Army UAVs are tactical assets managed by aviation soldiers, the reality is more complex, and will continue to be so as these systems become even more ubiquitous. Certainly, the triumphant claim that UAVs are aviation assets is jingoistic at best, and conflicts with the fact that Army UAVs are typically pushed to the lowest level practicable. In many cases, that's the infantry platoon at the remote combat outpost on the Pakistani border.
• The beginning of the end of the Predator? As the Great Satan's Girlfriend would say, "Oh, it's true, bay bee".
• As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the Army will look to the future, where massive Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and luxurious facilities may not be available. As many UAVs currently need a runway for takeoff and/or landing, Army planners will eventually start looking at Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) UAVs for reconnaissance and even resupply missions. Currently, there are plans for an autonomous Bell 407 and a K-MAX helicopter, both capable of carrying sling-loaded equipment to remote outposts in Afghanistan.
• Only two things keep US Central Command's General James Mattis up at night; one of them is the thought of UAVs in the hands of our adversaries. It's not an ill-founded fear, either: Iran supplied Hezbollah with UAVs--some packed with explosives--which were used in the 2006 Lebanon War. Then, in early 2009, an Iranian UAV wandered across the Iraqi border near Balad Ruz, whereupon it was shot down by an American fighter jet. In fact, feedback from the Combat Training Centers indicates that OPFOR UAVs are a "game-changer"; so much so that observer/controllers actually limit their use during major exercises.
• The new "pink team" is a combination of an armed helicopter and a UAV. Get used to it, guys.
• Finally, though I certainly understand that unmanned aircraft represent an incredible new technology, I found that much of the rhetoric still bordered on the utopian. Though we sing the praises of unmanned systems, rarely do we stop and reflect on the occasional missteps. I think I might have been the only one who walked up to the Northrop-Grumman booth and said, "Fire Scout? Didn't that get lost and fly through Washington, DC?"
Stay tuned for more updates as I slowly try to make my way through the last few weeks' worth of Afghanistan analysis. I have to admit, I felt a bit ashamed to meet up with Exum last night without having read his latest Afghanistan piece. Time to log some time on the iPad.