So near yet so far
Here's another phrase from the Vietnam era. Death From Above. The Wall Street Journal describes it's modern day incarnation.
The sniper never knew what hit him. The Marines patrolling the street below were taking fire, but did not have a clear shot at the third-story window that the sniper was shooting from. They were pinned down and called for reinforcements.
Help came from a Predator drone circling the skies 20 miles away. As the unmanned plane closed in, the infrared camera underneath its nose picked up the muzzle flashes from the window. The sniper was still firing when the Predator's 100-pound Hellfire missile came through the window and eliminated the threat.
Although the focus of stories like this is often on technology, there are two aspects of UAV warfare which often ignored. The first is the human factor. UAV combat may change the culture of Air Force away from the "live in fame or go down in flames" ethos. Or maybe not. The WSJ article describes the F-16 pilot who killed the sniper:
The airman who fired that missile was 8,000 miles away, here at Creech Air Force Base, home of the 432nd air wing. ... Col. Chris Chambliss, 49, was an F-16 pilot for 20 years before being tapped as the 432nd's first wing commander. He can tell you -- to the day -- the last time he flew an F-16 (March 29, 2007), but he insists he has no regrets about giving up his cockpit for the earthbound GCS of the Predator and its big sibling, the Reaper. "It's much more fun," Col. Chambliss admits, "to climb up a ladder and strap on an airplane than it is to walk into a GCS and sit down." But the payoff comes, he contends, in far greater effectiveness "in the fight."
But some bean-counter, reading that passage might ask himself if there's any justification to learning how become an F-16 fighter pilot before strapping on a joystick. That's a question which may have ramifications for Air Force culture.
The second factor is that with UAV warfare air superiority must implicitly be global. It's not sufficient to have local dominance. The US must control the bandwidth from end to end in this process. Without a support infrastructure based on theater, and possibly world-wide dominance, the little UAVs can't be fought from 8,000 miles away.
Taken together, this means that the airpower's job simultaneously got easier and harder. Easier in that the talent pool of joystick jockeys has increased by an order of magnitude. Harder because the line of information running through the ether between the tip of the spear and its virtual controller has become the thread on which battlefield success hangs.
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