Pentagon rejects Air Force bid to control UAV programs

Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England has rejected Air Force efforts to become the executive agent for all medium- and high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles, ending an unusually public interservice spat over whether one branch of the military should have far-reaching authority over the drones.

England's decision, outlined in a Thursday memo to senior defense and military officials, came after an intense push within the Air Force to oversee all unmanned aerial vehicles that fly above 3,500 feet. Air Force officials argued that doing so would eliminate duplication of efforts between the services on similar drone programs and potentially reduce research, development and procurement costs.

The other services viewed the Air Force's efforts as a power grab and vociferously objected, stating that they feared giving up their buying power over their UAV programs would result in systems that do not meet their specific needs.

In his memo, England directed the Pentagon's acquisition office to create a task force on UAV issues -- a move that will "enhance operations, enable interdependencies, and streamline acquisition" of the drones. He also directed Pentagon officials to take other steps to foster cross-service collaboration on the UAV programs.

The Air Force's campaign drew mixed reactions on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have tried to referee the fight. In the report accompanying the House-passed version of the fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill, lawmakers required senior Pentagon officials to review all UAV capabilities and determine whether designating a military department as an executive agent would help eliminate unnecessary duplication of effort and improve UAV interoperability and commonality between the services.

The Senate Armed Services Committee acknowledged in its report on the authorization bill that the Air Force has "raised a legitimate issue," but said it "wants to ensure that all pertinent aspects of the issue are considered." As their colleagues in the House did, members of the Senate panel said they expected a "careful study of the issue."

The news of England's decision did draw immediate praise from members of the Alabama delegation, whose state is home to the Army's UAV Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker. "It makes sense that the men and women who directly depend on UAV support for their mission's success have a say in how those systems are designed and operated," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who sits on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, said a recent trip to Iraq only further proved his belief that the Army should retain control of its UAV programs.

Shelby helped insert language in the fiscal 2008 Defense appropriations bill that would prohibit the Defense Department from transferring any research and development, acquisition or program authority for the Army's fleet of tactical UAVs away from the Army. Calls seeking comment from Air Force officials were not returned by presstime.

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