U.S. Use of Drones Surges Over Iraq

The Associated Press
Thursday, July 5, 2007; 3:40 PM

WASHINGTON -- The use of unmanned aircraft in Iraq has surged by nearly a third since the buildup of U.S. forces began this year, and drones are now racking up more than 14,000 hours a month in the battlefield skies.

The increase in unmanned aircraft _ from high-altitude Global Hawks to short-range reconnaissance Ravens that soldiers fling into the air _ has fueled a struggle among the military services over who will control their use and the more than $12 billion that will be spent on the programs over the next five years.

The Air Force wants to take over development and purchasing of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), arguing that it would save money and improve technology and communications.

It also wants more centralized command of the drones, saying better coordination could eliminate airspace conflicts that can endanger U.S. troops.

The other military services see a power grab, and they're fighting it.

A little more than a year ago, about 700 unmanned aircraft were operating in Iraq. By last December, according to Army data, that number had grown to about 950, and it's expected to soon hit 1,250.

At least 500 are the smaller Ravens that are used by the Army. The rest include Hunters and Shadows _ the Army's medium-altitude aircraft that can carry weapons _ as well as the Air Force Predators, which are also armed. Larger Global Hawks are used for high-tech surveillance.

The boost has been caused in part by the military buildup ordered by President Bush to help secure Baghdad and the Anbar province. U.S. forces in Iraq have grown by nearly 30,000, to a total of 157,000.

The Air Force argument for more central control over how and where the larger, medium-to-high-altitude drones are used would affect aircraft flown generally above 3,500 feet.

The Army is opposing the plan. Army officials say unit commanders need to be able to quickly deploy drones, and any additional bureaucracy could cause risky delays.

To illustrate, Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, the Army's aviation director, turns to a dark, middle-of-the night video taken in May by an Army drone over northern Iraq.

Two armed men can be seen apparently planting roadside bombs. As the unmanned aircraft tracks them, U.S. commanders dispatch an attack helicopter team. Just 16 minutes after the drone first observed the activity, the helicopter's 30 millimeter canon fires, taking out the insurgents.

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