An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night in 2010.

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night in 2010. AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Should One US Service Rule the Military’s Drones?

Ten years ago, the Air Force lost its bid to control the Pentagon’s nascent UAV fleets. Some say it should try again.

A decade ago, as the U.S. military scrambled to gear up for unexpectedly lengthy wars, the Air Force declared that it should oversee all Pentagon drones that flew higher than 3,500 feet. Its argument was simple: these new weapons were being developed and purchased in tremendous quantity and significant diversity. Without a single controlling agency, the thinking went, the various services’ drones might waste money, fight poorly together, or even blunder into the path of another service’s manned aircraft.

The Air Force lost that battle when Army and Navy leaders teamed up to block what they saw as an epic power grab, and today’s leaders say they have no desire to refight it. But with the U.S. military once again preparing to drastically expand its drone presence, some say it’s time to think about putting high-flying UAVs under one organizational roof.

“There needs to be someone with oversight that is actually pulling together and assuring the interdependency of the systems that each of the individual services are developing,” said David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who oversaw the Air Force’s drone and intelligence operations and pushed for a single-service executive agent. “That would go a long way to solving many of the challenges that exist in terms of providing sufficient capability to meet the demand that’s out there for UAVs.”

Air Force leaders say they have no interest in revisiting that battle.

“I don’t think the debate would be helpful or particularly useful right now,” Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at a Pentagon press briefing Monday. “The debate was contentious when we had it…It was divisive and it was not helpful in my view.”

Right now, the Air Force flies 61 drone orbits — that is, it has 61 high- and medium-altitude unmanned aircraft in the air at any given time. In the coming month, it will reduce those patrols by one. But Pentagon leaders have decreed that they must have access to up to 90 orbits within five years. Filling in the gap will be the Army, U.S. Special Forces, and defense contractors. With all of those extra aircraft flying, there have been some calls to put a single service in charge.

“An executive agent would induce the semblance of … integration in the context of ensuring these systems could operate together in an interdependent fashion and capitalize on their use when deployed in a much more integrated fashion,” Deptula said.

Such centralization isn’t needed for the thousands of smaller and hand-held drones heavily used by ground troops to gather intelligence, but rather for the bigger drones — some as large as a small business jets — that fly tens of thousands of feet in the air, some for longer than 40 hours nonstop. The military has more than 1,000 of these medium- and high-altitude drones. The main ones are the Air Force’s Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk; the Army’s Grey Eagle, a version of the Predator; and the Navy Triton, a version of Global Hawk, and Fire Scout helicopter.

Today, no single military service sets the standards for these high- and medium-altitude drones, although the services have increased their cooperation and joint training. Still, the Air Force chief isn’t convinced.

“I don’t think the debate would be much different right now than it was then,” Welsh said. “For that reason alone, I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Ten years ago, Air Force brass said a single executive agent was needed to reduce the risk of midair collision between a drone and a manned aircraft. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the former Air Force chief of staff who pushed hard for his service to become the “executive agent” for drones would point to a C-130 colliding with a small, unmanned aircraft as an example of why certain benchmarks were needed. These types of mishaps happened on more than one occasion.

An executive agent is a person within the Pentagon, delegated by the defense or deputy defense secretaries, who oversees support of a operational missions or administrative functions involving two or more services. For example, the Air Force is the executive agent for space, meaning it oversees “planning, program assessment, architecture development, and related activities to integrate [Defense Department], civil, commercial, and Intelligence Community (IC) space capabilities.” The Navy oversees maritime domain awareness; the Army oversees 40 different areas, including detainee policy and demilitarization of chemical weapons.

Deptula, who was a key supporter of the push in 2005 and 2007, insists “the Air Force wasn’t interested in controlling everybody’s UAVs. The notion of an executive agent was to introduce some unification in planning UAVs across all of the services.”

But Moseley’s push was seen much differently by the Air Force’s sister services, and it incited one of the biggest inter-service fights of the past decade. To this day, Army and Navy officers say the move was a power grab, a way for the Air Force to capture a monopoly on a key weapon of the future. “The Army and the Navy actually built a coalition between the two of them to basically tell the Air Force to back off,” a former Army officer said.

The main objection, at the time, was the Air Force wanted acquisition and doctrinal approval authority, the former officer said. “Executive agency as a title means a heck of a lot less if it’s only policy.” But once you start to steer the dollars, the stakes go way up.

Operational doctrine also mattered. Each of the services flies its unmanned aircraft differently. For more than a decade, the Air Force has based most of its drones overseas, and controlled them from bases at home. The Army, on the other hand, deploys most of its drones along with specific units, and flies them from command stations in theater. A decade ago, the Army, which primarily uses its drones to support Army units, feared that the Air Force would assign those aircraft to other missions considered higher priority.

Making things even more complicated, some U.S. lawmakers saw the move as a threat to jobs in their districts, right as the number of drone-related jobs were beginning to skyrocket.

In the end, the Air Force lost, and the services went on developing their own drones. In some cases, the divergent acquisition efforts wasted hundreds of millions of dollars.

Defense officials say there are no plans to rehash the executive agent debate. Instead, these officials say, they are working to make the intelligence gathered by drones more accessible at the battlefield and strategic levels.

And echoing the Air Force’s primary concern from a decade ago, there is a growing push to develop sense-and-avoid technology: electronics that allow manned and unmanned aircraft to see one another. This type of technology is essential to flying drones over U.S. territory, where the skies are crowded with commercial air traffic. The National Guard and Customs and Border Protection are big advocates of the program.

“Sense-and-avoid is something that we’ve been working on our own internal research and development,” said Chris Pehrson, director of strategic development for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, maker of the Predator and Reaper.

Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.