January 1, 2013  

Letters to the Editor: UAV tribalism, Retirement planning

The authors of “Unloved Aerial Vehicles” [November 2012] appear to have lost link with reality. They argue that a biased Air Force leadership, blinded by tribal loyalty, is retrograding the service into the past by investing in manned platforms. Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta and M.L. Cummings assert that unless the Air Force can “give up the old and embrace the new,” the service will find itself irrelevant.

Remote operation is not a panacea; it is an enabler. Taking the pilot out of the cockpit makes sense only when it confers an operational or strategic advantage. What we must do is identify those mission sets when remote operations will allow us to exploit the sensors and capabilities of a platform that would otherwise be constrained by a pilot in the cockpit. Systems like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper met a unique requirement for long-duration surveillance and attack needed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The mission and threat environment dictate the required capabilities of our platforms. As a rule, cost is driven by the aerodynamic performance of the platform and the complexity of its sensors, associated analysts, survival systems, operators and weapons suite — not whether the pilot is in the cockpit or remotely located. While RPAs such as Predator are often characterized as less expensive, that is not always the case, and it does not necessarily follow that RPAs or their operations are cheaper than manned aircraft. The notion that RPAs are cheaper and thus should replace manned aircraft is a distraction from the real issue. We must identify when and how remote operations facilitate mission accomplishment and focus our investment to maximize and exploit those areas.

The Air Force has a long history with unmanned aircraft development and operations. From remotely controlled B-17s in World War II to the highly effective Lightning Bug of the Vietnam era, the Air Force has aggressively pursued RPAs when they have offered unique opportunities or have enhanced operations in ways that manned aircraft could not. Contrary to Spinetta and Cummings account, fighter pilots have been key champions for the RPA community: Gen. Ronald Fogleman, a fighter pilot, personally advocated for RQ-1 ownership and stood up the first Predator squadron in the mid-1990s. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, another fighter pilot, was largely responsible for the dramatic growth in the RPA portfolio over the last decade, and Lt. Gen. David Deptula (fighter pilot) conceived, designed and developed the Air Force UAV Flight Plan 2009-2047.

Operational “tribes” are an important facet of the Air Force war-fighter culture, and that esprit de corps and sense of heritage directly contribute to the tactical excellence that our nation depends upon. But what defines the leaders who championed the tremendous growth and development of RPAs in the last two decades was not that they were fighter pilots — it’s that they are, first and foremost, airmen. As air-minded leaders who pioneered innovative approaches to achieve the effects our national security demands, their primary loyalty was not to their tribe, but to how airpower can uniquely meet our nation’s needs while limiting undue vulnerability.

Balance in the force structure requirements and the tension of budget pressure are ever-present challenges for service leadership. Spinetta and Cummings disparage Gen. Mark Welsh, the current Air Force chief of staff and a fighter pilot, but ignore that fact that it was former Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz — not a fighter pilot — who made the decision to cancel the Global Hawk Block 30. RPAs have been and will continue to be an invaluable element of the Air Force portfolio, as will manned aircraft. Sadly, it appears that your authors not only fail to understand the history of their own community, but have fallen victim to the very tribalism they decry.

Heather Penney

The writer is a former Air Force fighter pilot

Washington, D.C.

In regard to “Help Troops Save” [November], I certainly endorse the efforts to encourage retirement savings with automatic enrollment for new service members and behavioral changes for current service members. But instead of automatically showing a chart that compares a service member’s savings to those of his or her demographic, I suggest displaying one that illustrates the amount of lifetime income to which their account value would entitle them if they began to withdraw at a given retirement age (perhaps Social Security Full Retirement Age).

When I work with successful folks who have saved well and are leading a preferred lifestyle, they are often shocked to learn that their million dollars in savings translates to an annual income of only $50,000 (plus adjustments for inflation over a 30-year retirement). Imagine the current service members seeing a chart that shows how their guaranteed lifetime income account value slowly crawls up as they save and the values cannot go down until they withdraw. It encourages them to save more, and they’ll need it to sustain their lifestyle. This is a far more motivating chart than the demographic comparison-type chart suggested by the authors.

Michael J. Zmistowski

Tampa, Fla.