ABOARD THE USS HARRY S TRUMAN — The Navy lags well behind the Air Force in the development of armed drones — the unmanned aircraft now used increasingly in Iraq and Afghanistan — insisting that its "Top Gun" fighter pilots are still smarter, better and more flexible in combat.
But the contrasting visions for the next generation of America's air arsenal point to wider debates within the military about the pace of incorporating remote-control technology into future battle strategies.
It also touches on differences in military cultures — with the Navy coming under criticism for its apparent resistance to substitute fighter pilot training and instincts with aircraft guided by operators who can be thousands of miles away.
For the moment, the Navy is deeply committed to plans for the F-35 fighter jet and developing a drone fleet strictly for surveillance and other non-weapon tasks. The Air Force, meanwhile, has used armed drones for years and appears to embody Pentagon trends to encourage drones as a way to reduce costs and consolidate personnel.
Drone technology under debate
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a speech in April, called on the Air Force and other military officials to rethink "long-standing service assumptions and priorities about which missions require certified pilots, and which do not."
Gates added that "unmanned systems cost much less and offer greater loiter times than their manned counterparts — making them ideal for many of today's tasks."
But many Navy pilots believe the drone technology has its limits when called on to strike targets, saying that pilots cannot be fully replaced.
"I'm not worried about losing my job, let me put it that way," said Lt. Cmdr. Brice Casey, an F/A-18 fighter jet pilot, speaking after a mission over Iraq from the USS Harry S. Truman, which recently ended a deployment in the Persian Gulf.
The Navy currently uses Global Hawk reconnaissance drones and is developing a helicopter-like unmanned aircraft called the Fire Scout that can take off and land vertically on ships. But neither operate off aircraft carriers or possess strike capability.
Last year, the Navy awarded its first-ever contract for a drone that will be able to operate from a carrier. It isn't scheduled for deployment until 2025 and is also limited to reconnaissance missions.
That puts the Navy many years behind the Air Force, which first used an armed version of the Predator drone in combat in Afghanistan in 2001. The Air Force's latest version, the Reaper, can carry up to 14 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles or alternately, four Hellfires and two 500-pound bombs over Iraq, Afghanistan or other war zones.
Tom Ehrhard, an expert on unmanned aircraft at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, predicted it would take pressure from Congress and the defense secretary to "continue to move the Navy down this path" toward an eventual armed drone. Ehrhard is a former Air Force officer.
Navy says drones no substitute for pilots
The Air Force has taken some of its pilots out of the air to staff drones to try to keep up with increased demand from soldiers on the battlefield. But the Navy says drones are no substitute for trained pilots in the cockpit.
Unmanned aircraft are good for targeted strikes, but less effective in quick-changing, dynamic combat situations, said Navy fighter pilots aboard the USS Truman. The pilots contend that technicians piloting drones by video and computer from afar might not get a full visual sense — or the intangible "feel" — for a combat scene.
Drones also perform well in places with limited anti-aircraft capabilities — such as Iraq and Afghanistan — but could be easier targets for ground-based rockets in places with more advanced systems.
"There is a lot that I can do and relay and make decisions in real-time — based on being at the scene — that a guy is going to have a very difficult time making from one camera," said Cmdr. Bill Sigler, head of an F/A-18 fighter jet squadron on the USS Truman.
The Navy officially backs that position.
"Manned aircraft still retain relevancy in scenarios where airborne decision-making is critical to mission success," said Navy spokesman Lt. Clay Doss.
He cited close air support, where pilots provide air cover for troops on the ground, and also direct ground attack "where dynamic maneuvering and/or visual situational awareness is necessary."
The Navy will look at strike capability for future generations of its carrier drone, Doss said. But he stressed that the aircraft would not replace the Navy's fighter pilots anytime in the foreseeable future.
Concerns about safety, reliability
The Navy also worries about drone reliability and safety.
The Navy developed its first unmanned combat aircraft in the 1950s and 1960s. But the Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter, which operated off destroyers and frigates, was plagued by accidents and pilot error, and half were lost.
The Navy's current program consists of a $646 million contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. to build an unmanned jet, known as the X-47B, able to take off and land from an aircraft carrier. The first test flight is scheduled for late 2009, with a deployment date of 2025.
Since the drone won't carry any weapons, airstrikes will presumably be done by the next-generation F-35, which the Navy is expected to receive in 2015.
But Ehrhard noted a drone carrying the same weapons payload as the F-35 would have two and a half times the range of a manned aircraft without refueling, and could remain over the battlefield 5 to 10 times as long.
He called that increased reach critical as the military reduces the size and number of bases overseas, while needing to monitor remote spots around the globe.
"What the Navy doesn't want is a competitor for the F-35 program," said Ehrhard. "The F-35 program is their strike aircraft, so saying they are going to develop another strike aircraft conflicts with their own program."
Ehrhard said drones with full strike capability operating off aircraft carriers "will always be at least another generation of pilots away."
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