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John J. Kruzel - American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 25, 2010 - Perhaps no other weapon platform has more significantly transformed the way the U.S. military wages war in recent years than unmanned aerial aircraft, a senior defense official told Congress yesterday.
Since 2006, operations have grown from about 165,000 hours to more than 550,000 hours annually, said Dyke Weatherington, the deputy for the unmanned aerial vehicle planning task force in the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
"I would articulate that it is difficult to find any other technology in the Department of Defense that in a single decade has made such a tremendous impact on the warfighting capability of the department," Weatherington told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The department's budget has reflected the growing emphasis on unmanned vehicles, with the annual allotment for development and procurement of such systems increasing from about $1.7 billion in fiscal 2006 to more than $4.2 billion in fiscal 2010.
The rapid fielding of such systems has not been without flaws, Weatherington acknowledged, citing ongoing challenges in making systems interoperable among various users of the technology. Yet, he said, the goal remains to maintain the ability to meet warfighters' urgent needs, while encouraging individual service branches to adopt the same technology.
"There are several examples of where, through [Office of the Secretary of Defense] and Joint Staff encouragement, we have gotten all the services to procure identical or virtually identical systems," he told lawmakers.
Speaking at an Army conference earlier this year, Army Col. Christopher B. Carlile said unmanned aerial systems, operated at the tactical level by troops on the ground, are bringing warfighters unprecedented intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.
"There's an old saying that science and science fiction is only separated by timing," Carlile, director of the Army Unmanned Aerial System Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala., said during an Association of the U.S. Army aviation forum here in January. "And that timing is now. We have it."
Some considered Army unmanned aerial systems little more than "model airplanes with some sensors hanging from them and a bunch of guys flying around with play toys" when they first entered the scene in the mid-1990s, Carlile said. But they've proven themselves as force multipliers that save lives on the battlefield, and have come to be embraced by the warfighters who employ them.
With almost 1 million such flight hours clocked in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army is committed to growing the program to keep pace with demand for the capability. This year alone, the Army plans to train more than 2,000 operators who ultimately will deploy with the ground troops they will support, Carlile reported.
Army unmanned aerial systems come in three primary forms. The Raven, just under three feet long, supports battalions down to the platoon level. The Shadow, 11 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan, supports brigade-level operations. The more sophisticated "big daddy" of Army systems, the Extended Range Multi-Purpose system, has a 56-foot wingspan and supports division-level operations.
Lt. Gen. James Thurman, the Army's deputy chief of staff for operations, told attendees at the AUSA session in January that the Army will continue to invest in unmanned as well as manned aircraft to support warfighters.
"Unmanned aircraft systems continue to significantly improve our war efforts, and demand for these specialized systems continues to rise," he said. "The Army will continue to pursue highly capable systems while providing aircraft, highly skilled operators and advanced capabilities to support the war efforts."
In addition to U.S. warfighters, these platforms have proven useful for American allies such as Pakistan, which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates earlier this year said would receive RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial vehicles from the U.S. to support their fight against extremists.
The United States has been working with the Pakistani military for more than a year to enhance its own intelligence and surveillance capabilities, Gates said in remarks in January during a visit to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
"We share a lot of information that we acquire on the Afghan side of the border and from our satellites," Gates said, "but we also are trying to help the Pakistanis build their own capabilities."