Tough nut

Posted by Lex, on March 24th, 2008 · 36 Comments · GWOT, Military

As contrasted to his predecessor, SecDef Gates may have proven a more congenial boss, but it’s clear he’s no pushover. The Secretary is turning the screws on elements within the 5-sided wind tunnel that, in his opinion, haven’t fully transitioned to a “war footing.” He’s come down hard on the Army for the Walter Reed mess, and the ground forces generally on the topic of mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles – MRAPs.

Now he’s apparently turning his attention to UAVs – and the Air Force is pushing back:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has ordered the Air Force to put nearly all of its unmanned Predator aircraft into the skies over the Middle East, forcing the service to take steps that officers worry could hobble already-stressed drone squadrons.

Pressure from the Defense secretary in recent months has nearly doubled the number of Predators available to help hunt insurgents and find roadside bombs in Iraq. But it has forced air commanders into a scramble for crews that officers said could hurt morale and harm the long-term viability of the Predator program.

Some officers said pressure from Gates resulted in one plan that could have taken the Air Force down a path similar to the German Luftwaffe, which cut back training in World War II to get more pilots in the air.

“That was the end of their air force,” said Col. Chris Chambliss, commander of the Air Force’s Predator wing. The Air Force plan, presented to the military leadership in January, eventually was scaled back.

In the services generally, there is a tension between winning the war we’re in – a hard fight to get clear of – and preserving capability for other, theoretical conflicts in the future. This particular issue is merely another example of a ”no good choices” conundrum.

Going “all in” by cannibalizing training capacity for operations will lead eventually to a precipitous drop in capability, as overstressed operators transition to new assignments (or leave the service) with no replacements in the pipeline. Failure to commit all forces will inevitably mean more combat losses, a fact grimly reinforced by the death of four soldiers this weekend, bringing the butcher’s bill to 4000 in Iraq alone.

Based on the LA Times article, the USAF’s position seems to be that only qualified pilots, taught by qualified instructor pilots, are suitable for kinetic operations in close proximity to friendlies.  One partial solution  would be to transition pipeline training from active duty pilots to contract instructors. Another might be to accept two tiers of capability: A “low end” for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaisance (ISR) of the type that the Army is begging for because it helps them find IEDs, and a “high end” of ISR plus the kinetic capability which makes such cool YouTube videos.

Pentagon officials familiar with Gates’ thinking said he was not likely to let up. As one example, the Air Force is under pressure to give up its insistence that only qualified pilots fly Predators. That would significantly expand the available pool of operators.

“I’m not satisfied that anybody in the Pentagon is doing enough to put us on a path where we have adequate resources for this,” Gates said in the interview this year.

Good for him.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, GWOT, Lex, Neptunus Lex

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