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In push for drones, Gates labors to change Pentagon

The services aren't delivering enough unmanned planes to war zones, the Defense secretary charges.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 28, 2008

Predator: The unmanned plane is in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan because it provides full-motion video of a battle zone in near real time.




The military is scrambling to put more unmanned aircraft over Iraq and Afghanistan to conduct surveillance and augment ground forces there.

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US troops see the unmanned aerial vehicles – or UAVs – as "force-multipliers," simple and relatively inexpensive ways to boost their effectiveness in the field. But the latest impetus to get them deployed comes from the top. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week publicly chastised the services for not getting more of the planes into battle zones.

The flap over the unmanned planes is the latest example of Secretary Gates's effort to shake up the Pentagon. Much like his push to speed up delivery of armored troop-transport vehicles to Iraq last year – a request that originally came from the field – the new initiative is part of Gates's strategy to force the services to think differently and more creatively to solve problems quickly, experts say.

But overcoming the Pentagon's institutional inertia will not come easily.

Even as they agree with Gates's assessment that new approaches are needed, officials at the Army and Air Force, which lead the military in the use of unmanned planes, say that they are doing as much as they can.

"It's perfectly logical to me that the Defense secretary is as frustrated as he can be," says Brig. Gen. Blair Hansen, who directs the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance division at the Pentagon. "We need to do all we can to shove as much capability into the field at almost all cost."

At issue is how to provide more and better ground surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of using ground forces to "peek around the corner," unmanned planes flown by remote control can help spot enemy activity or provide surveillance of potential targets more cheaply and safely.

Gates announced last week that he had created a new task force to look at how the military could provide more such planes faster and expects the first report in the coming days.

The US military uses dozens of different kinds of unmanned planes, ranging from small hand-launched craft to much larger ones that can fly at 65,000 feet for many hours.

The unmanned plane most in demand is the Predator, one of a handful of planes flown by the Army and Air Force. On of its crucial abilities is providing full-motion video, which gives commanders on the ground critical information in near real time about the surrounding area.