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
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
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
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.”