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.”
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