Tuesday, April 03, 2007

US Military challenges in Iraq and robotic aircraft development

{ Audio this essay @ 7min @ 1.59MB } Two excellent articles on military analysis have appeared in Slate magazine in the last few days.

The first one is titled, "Broken Arrow: How the U.S. Army broke in Iraq" by Phillip Carter

Here is a quote:
Four years into the war, the Army still has too few troops to persevere in Iraq and Afghanistan and too few deployed in each place to win. To surge its forces in Iraq, the Army has dipped deep into its well, returning units back to combat after less than a year at home, leaving many with little time to train incoming soldiers and come together as a team. Of all the signs of breakage, perhaps the most acute is the decision to redeploy Army brigades to Iraq sooner and for longer tours in combat. The entire active-duty force is either deployed, set to deploy soon, or within one year of coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan. Short of conscripting millions of Americans to rapidly build a larger military, contracting out for a larger force, or mobilizing the entire reserves at once, military leaders say they have no other choice—to surge in Iraq, they must reduce the time soldiers spend at home between deployments and lengthen their combat tours from 12 to 16 or 18 months. But sending troops to Iraq after such a short time to reorganize, refit, and retrain is a recipe for disaster.[1]
The second one is titled, "B-52, Where Are You? Why the Pentagon doesn't want you to know its bombers finally work" by Gregg Easterbrook

And a quote from that one:
The withering away of the bomber corps reflects planning assumptions a quarter-century old. Then, the thinking was that precision-guided munitions delivered from low altitude by jet fighters would take over nearly all conventional bombing roles. As recently as a few months before 9/11, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ordered the mothballing of 30 B-1 bombers on the theory that they'd never be used in a modern, fighter-dominated air war anyway. Pentagon planners assumed that bombers would play a secondary role while low-flying fighters put the smart explosives on the target. Instead, unexpected technical breakthroughs resulted in extremely accurate munitions that can be dropped from high altitude by bombers, at less cost and risk than using low-flying fighters. The result has been that during the Afghanistan and second Iraq campaigns, most of the air punch has been delivered by a handful of the remaining bombers. Some 80 percent of the bombs dropped during the U.S. seizure of Afghanistan fell from bombers; the share dropped on Iraq since March 2003 is nearly as high. Though bombers have in this decade turned out to be far more important to U.S. military action than Pentagon strategists expected, the government still plans to invest fantastic amounts of money in fighter planes that would be used mainly to drop bombs.[2]
What makes these articles nice "book ends" to one another is that one covers issues in ground military power, while the other covers issues in air military power.

In the end, I think problems identified in both articles will be somewhat alleviated by robotic aircraft, both of the tactical variety[3] and of the strategic variety.[4] However, there seems to be two general problems with robotic aircraft.

First, it appears that they threaten a certain mystique of pilot culture, a culture which is reinforced by the standard profile of a fighter pilot and by society at large. Psychologists have observed that first-born children form a statistically significant proportion of fighter pilots. There have been many reasons cited for this. First borns tend to be more successful, and the very occupation of fighter pilot is highly prized in greater society. Also, older siblings have higher self esteem, confidence in social interactions, and proclivities toward leadership roles.[5] Since there are many individuals already in the profession who both prize and influence the values of fighter pilot culture, and since society itself prizes (and socially rewards) the job of fighter pilot, it is no surprise that a shift to robotic aircraft has not inspired those within (and even outside of) combat aircraft culture. Note, however, that predictors for a person becoming a pilot and predictors for the performance of a pilot are not the same: "Reviews of the research literature have generally concluded that personality factors contribute little to pilot performance."[6]

Second, the appearance of robotic aircraft make the current financial commitments towards advanced, manned fighter programs seem extravagant, perhaps even unnecessary. Naturally, there are people in the Air Force who want to deny this:
Col. Christopher Jella is the commander of the 18th Reconnaissance Squadron, the newest Global Hawk unit. From Beale Air Force Base in California, Jella oversees pilots and sensor operators who control 120-foot-wingspan reconnaissance drones that are launched from forward locations in Southwest Asia. “I think a lot of the mysticism with UAVs [i.e., Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] comes with the fact that we’ve lumped them all into this UAV [rubric],” Jella said. “Remember, back in 1920, you had this thing called an ‘airplane’, and you had the same problem.“What we now call UAVs represent so many diverse aircraft performing such diverse missions that it’s pointless to generalize about them — and pointless to compare them to manned aircraft,” Jella said. What’s more, he adds, the Air Force should be interested in “effects,” not specific hardware.[4]
Colonel Jella's position that it's pointless to generalize and compare robotic aircraft to manned aircraft is in error. There is indeed a very general and straightforward rebuttal to such thinking: when robotic aircraft are destroyed in combat, somebody temporarily loses some money; but, when when manned aircraft are destroyed in combat, somebody loses a husband and/or a parent. Sorry Colonel--I hardly find that generalization about robotic aircraft pointless.


[1] "Broken Arrow: How the U.S. Army broke in Iraq." Slate Magazine Online (March 2007)

[2] "B-52, Where Are You?: Why the Pentagon doesn't want you to know its bombers finally work." Slate Magazine Online (April 2007)

[3] Frank Colucci "Army Developing Tactics for Armed Robotic Aircraft" National Defense (April 2005)

[4] By David Axe August 2006 "Clouds on the horizon for pilot-less bombers" National Defense (August 2006)

[5] Tenney, Rogers, and Pew, 1988; Gras, Moricot, and Poirot-Delpech, 1989; Rogers, Tenney, and Pew, 1991; Sarter (1991); Woods and Sarter (1992); Madigan and D.Tsang, 1992; Sherman, Helmreich, Smith, Wiener, and Merritt, 1992; Sherman, 1995.

[6] Siem & Murray "Personality factors affecting pilot combat performance: a preliminary investigation." Aviation, space, and environmental medicine 1994 May;65(5 Suppl):A45-8.


Disclosure: I was in the Air Force in the early 1980s, and in the Army National Guard in the late 1980s.

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