By Andrea Shalal-Esa
CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming integral to U.S. warfare, but their use for border patrol, homeland security and even weather monitoring will also increase, the general recently appointed to oversee these new aircraft told Reuters.
Each of the military services is already operating some unmanned systems, and many more are being developed. At least 10 different unmanned aircraft are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan but few have completed their testing, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office, or GAO.
GAO said the Pentagon earmarked $2.2 billion of its fiscal 2005 budget for aircraft which are remotely piloted, sometimes from as far away as Nevada, and more sophisticated drones which fly based on a programmed flight plan. That's up from $363 million just four years earlier.
"We are going to try to maximize that capability," said Army Brig. Gen. Walt Davis, who heads a new Joint Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence at Creech Air Force Base, an hour north of Las Vegas. Work began at the center on Oct. 1.
Davis said the new center was set up because the Pentagon decided it needed "an overarching concept" to coordinate all the various developments already underway.
Unmanned systems are in demand because they put fewer soldiers in harm's way, can carry out reconnaissance missions for less money, have the ability to shoot at targets, and allow U.S. troops to persistently stare down at trouble spots for up to 24 hours at a time, Davis said.
Davis, who is still building his agency, has 14 employees who have begun a survey of the Pentagon's biggest growth area, including all classified and unclassified development already underway, as well as seeking to determine what the military truly needs.
"I think we have a great opportunity here," said Davis. "We are really trying to focus on our joint operations."
Once the study is completed by October 2006, Davis says his job will be to help balance competing programs and ensure that all the many unmanned aerial systems can actually work together and share data across the services, and with U.S. allies.
"I'm going to be asked to be the honest broker on many things, and to make tough recommendations on occasion," Davis said in an interview at this remote desert base, which is also home to the Air Force's Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Battle Lab.
Among challenges Davis faces is the need to revamp U.S. military tactics to reflect increased use of unmanned systems, including the Predator, built by San Diego, Calif.-based General Atomics Aeronautics, which is flying some 30,000 hours a year gathering data and targeting attacks.
It will seek to coordinate existing service programs and provide joint solutions that are better integrated, he said.
Another challenge is to ensure updated air traffic rules reflect the expected increased use of unmanned vehicles, including the high-flying autonomous Global Hawk, built by Northrop Grumman Corp.
At the moment, even flying a test Predator across state lines from Nevada to Utah requires Herculean efforts and much juggling because of dangers posed by civilian aircraft, said 1st Lt. Justin McVay, a spokesman at Creech.
Another vexing problem - and one highlighted in a new report by the GAO -- is how to make all these unmanned systems communicate with each other and other weapons, Davis said.
"It's a big job," Davis said. "It's an important job though."