By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
The only upside to the heavy burden that America's Army is carrying in Iraq is an abundance of money. Congress may not know how to deal with IEDs or save the marriage of a soldier deploying for his fourth tour in Mesopotamia, but it sure knows how to spend money, and right now the Army is getting pretty much everything it asks for. That's a distinct departure from budgetary tradition, which in the past has relegated the Army to third place behind the Air Force and Navy in the competition for resources.
Unfortunately, Army leaders have mistaken the nation's gratitude for a sea-change in strategy. They think that the generous budget share their service is currently receiving will persist after America's involvement in Iraq winds down, even though history suggests otherwise. So instead of planning realistically for the coming budget crunch, they are pursuing ambitious investment initiatives such as a new cargo plane that probably can't be sustained if defense spending falls from 4% of GDP this year to 3% in 2011 as the Bush Administration predicts.
One place where the Army's optimism is especially pronounced is in its plans for unmanned aircraft. It proposes to buy a fleet of 132 high-end reconnaissance drones, equipping each division with a dozen aircraft capable of staying aloft for a day and traversing the entire length of the Middle East. The unmanned planes are basically warmed-over versions of the Predator already operated for all the services by the Air Force.
The Army hopes that if its combat units have control of their own high-altitude, long-endurance drones, they will not have to wait until the joint air commander decides it is their turn. Only 34 of the 1,200 drones U.S. forces are using in Southwest Asia can operate beyond the line of sight of ground controllers, so sometimes the wait for access to that handful of planes can be quite lengthy.
In a world of unbounded budgets, the Army's plan to dedicate billions of dollars and thousands of soldiers to its own fleet of high-end reconnaissance drones might make sense. But in the real world of limited resources and competing military needs, it looks wasteful. If the drones are tied to specific units, then at any given time only a third will be available to troops in combat, because the Army rotates forces in a pattern where one unit is deployed, a second is at home recovering and a third is at home getting ready to go.
That's very different from the current approach to using Predators, in which remote pilots in the U.S. operate drones based overseas via satellite links. The current approach enables the Air Force to keep 85% of Predators in the combat zone at any given time, whereas the Army's plan would reduce the portion of the fleet available for combat use to perhaps 35%.
The difference between the two approaches is amplified by the fact that it takes several drones to keep one on patrol continuously.
Under the Army plan, if five divisions were deployed in Iraq (as is presently the case), their combined inventory of 60 Predators would be able to keep 12-15 aloft at any given time.
In contrast, the approach used by the Air Force can keep nearly three times as many drones in the air because the availability of the fleet is not tied to rotation patterns and concentrating all the drones at a few sites permits maintenance efficiencies.
It is hard to believe that the advantages of giving local commanders direct control over these vital intelligence-gathering tools outweigh being able to field an operational fleet that is so much bigger.
The Army needs to rethink its plans for unmanned aircraft to recognize the reality that funding won't always be so abundant, air space won't always be so benign, and America's soldiers are part of a joint team that must use scarce intelligence assets wisely.