US Air Force Lt Col Lawrence Spinetta and M.L. Cummings make an interesting point in this Armed Forces Journal piece, edited by my former editor at Defense News and good friend Brad Peniston.
The two authors assert that the USAF risks irrelevance in future conflicts by what they perceive as the service's abandonment of unmanned aircraft in favor of traditional air power capabilities. Without former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to twist the USAF's arm, the service is "rolling back the inroads made by unmanned aircraft," they argue.
They cite the USAF's move to cull the problem-plagued RQ-4B Block 30 Global Hawk from the service's fleet as one example of this. They cite the USAF's decision not to move forward with the MQ-X next generation unmanned aircraft as another such move (but no mention of the USAF's explanation of why that decision was made). And they point to the Air Force's decision to cut General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper production in half from 48 to 24 as yet another example.
"The Air Force's abandonment of its UAS Flight Plan not only squanders this promising growth opportunity, it unwisely conjoins the service's future to the life cycle of manned combat aircraft," the article reads.
The men damn the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor for not having flown a single combat mission to date, citing US Senator John McCain, who called the stealthy fifth-generation jet "largely irrelevant to the most predominant current threats to national security -- terrorists, insurgencies and other non-state actors." But they heap praise on the Predator and Reaper.
Spinetta and Cummings appear to take as gospel the air power theories of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates--which are privately (or sometimes quite openly--one particular retired officer had some choice words to describe Gates' views on air power) derided by many former USAF leaders. Spinetta, particularly, is known as a vocal advocate of unmanned aircraft.
Moreover, the authors seem to be largely focused on the types of conflicts that the United States has been fighting over the past decade--mostly the counterinsurgency type of fight. They don't seem to take into account the strategic pivot towards the Pacific that US President Barack Obama announced earlier in the year. There is no mention of the challenges current unmanned aircraft would face in the anti-access/area denial environments found in the Western Pacific. Nor do they seem to acknowledge the challenges than even a next generation stealthy unmanned aircraft might face in those environments--communications being one such example.
Just recently, speaking at an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Air Combat Command chief General Mike Hostage told a crowd of Washington DC think tank analysts and defense reporters that the current fleet of unmanned aircraft is irrelevant as the US shifts its gaze towards the Pacific theatre.
"We are now shifting to a theatre where there is an adversary out there who is going to have a vote on whether I have that staring eye over the battlefield 24[hours], seven [days a week], 365 [days a year], and pretty certain they are not going to allow that to happen," he says. "The fleet I've built up--and I'm still being prodded to build up too--is not relevant in that new theatre."