Will unmanned aerial vehicles run out of air?

Global Persistent Strike bomber

Experts question whether DOD has enough radio bands to support them

Unmanned aerial vehicles are vital to the Defense Department's net-centric operations, according to the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, but the bandwidth essential to supporting them is disappearing.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said DOD's plans for greater use are unworkable because the portion of the radio spectrum the drones rely on is finite and is rapidly being used up by other commercial and DOD programs.

Big success

Defense officials emphasized the use of UAVs in the QDR after their success in Iraq and Af-ghanistan, where they were run by controllers in the United States.

UAV payload data is used for targeting, bomb damage assessment and intelligence analysis. But experts say DOD must deal with the bandwidth limitations to make this possible.

'For all this QDR talk of 'network-centric' and 'network everything,' they have a horrible bandwidth crunch'because they're operating so many of these UAVs beyond line of sight, and they need bandwidth in order to get the sensor data back to the processing center,' Pike said.

He said DOD was 'lucky' to have bought from the commercial spot market sufficient bandwidth and transponders in 2001 for initial UAV operations in Afghanistan. But as UAV-driven requirements 'increase exponentially,' available bandwidth continues to shrink.

There probably will not be enough bandwidth for the new Global Persistent Strike bomber, Pike said, leaving no choice but to use laser transponders and cross-links to communicate.

'They'd have to use the laser satellite' under the Transformational Communications Satellite program, Pike said.

Fielding UAVs that use laser cross-links is unlikely until decade's end, however, and forecasts suggest difficult mission trade-offs'and interagency competition'until then. Leasing commercial satellite systems is one option, experts said.

Still, the QDR'which President Bush submitted to Congress Feb. 6 along with his fiscal 2007 budget request'suggests an evolution in Pentagon thinking about the role of IT in countering cyberthreats.

UAVs' ability to communicate back to a network, the report notes, 'achieves a level of air-ground integration that was difficult to imagine just a decade ago,' helping 'joint forces gain greater situational awareness to attack the enemy,' and enabling 'faster decision-making and subsequent actions.'

In the larger scheme, net-centricity isn't only an enterprise asset but 'a weapons system to be protected.' Information security is so vital, the document warns, that even cyberattacks from abroad could result in an unspecified 'overwhelming response.'

In a speech at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, deputy secretary of Defense Gordon England said the QDR recognizes the department's increased reliance on information.

'We are organizing information and analysis, so we're going to change some of our fundamental structures to make timely and better-informed decisions,' England said. 'We're going to move as much as we can to horizontal integration.'

Acquisition changes

England said the department will also move to improve its acquisition processes.

'Instead of looking at a specific program we will look at capability portfolios. So ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), for example, could be a capability rather than just individual programs,' England said.

Current and evolving cyberthreats, the review added, underscore the need to 'design, operate and defend the network to ensure continuity of joint operations.' This includes the core of net-centric operations, the Global Information Grid, which enables the digital collection, communication, storage and man- agement of data for Defense, as well as the Transformational Communication Architecture.

Congress will be 'studying' the QDR, said House Armed Services Committee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.). 'It appears the QDR has become a budget-driven exercise, which limits its utility to Congress.'

The committee plans soon to release its own 'threat-based Defense Review,' he said, with 'a more complete picture of America's national security needs.'

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