A U.S. Navy plan for aircraft carrier-based drones has launched a dogfight in Washington over the role of the robotic planes in combat.
The Navy has asked contractors for reconnaissance drones — essentially spy planes, with only limited ability to carry out bombing missions behind enemy lines.
But key congressional leaders want cutting-edge warplanes, stealthy drones that can attack key targets in contested areas with little more than a mouse click. If they get their way, the program, which would produce the military's first carrier-based drones, could end aviation as the Navy has known it, observers say.
FOR THE RECORD:
This article lists South Korea as a potential adversary of the United States. It should have said North Korea.
"It could usher in a new era in which major strike missions are turned over to a machine. That will be difficult for many carrier aviators to swallow," said Samuel D. Brannen, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon strategist.
The Navy's plans to deploy the drones within the next decade came to an abrupt halt this month when key members of Congress said the program is shortsighted. Lawmakers halted all funding until the secretary of Defense can complete a top-to-bottom review.
Four of the nation's largest military weapons makers are waiting to see how the skirmish plays out: Northrop Grumman Corp., Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Much of these companies' drone operations are based in Southern California, and they would welcome the work at a time when defense spending on weapons is expected to shrink.
The controversy heated up when the Navy first sent classified proposals for the drone program to four contractors. The industry was expecting a bold plan to build radar-evading aircraft capable of challenging bombing missions. But it was apparently not what they received.
Upon seeing the Navy's conservative request for spy planes, leaders on the House Armed Services Committee questioned whether the Navy is being too restrictive.
"I feel very strongly that we can't make a mistake on this program," said Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of a subcommittee that oversees Navy programs. "It's going to be critical for decades to come."
He believes Navy brass is hesitant to turn over strategic bombing missions in contested areas of the world — now carried out by seasoned fighter pilots — to drones.
Forbes said the Navy needs a next-generation drone that will overwhelm potential adversaries — such as China, South Korea and Russia — that have made multibillion-dollar investments in advanced missiles and radar detection.
Now, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel must assess the requirements before funding of the drone program resumes. Under a provision tucked into the annual defense policy bill, Hagel will either sign off on the current plans or force the Navy to move closer to the stealthy, long-range strike drone that many in Congress desire. It's a debate that has raged in Washington since the advent of drone technology: How much responsibility will be taken from pilots and given to machines?
"There's a cultural issue there," Forbes said. "We've had to have these arguments with the Pentagon before."
He recalled having to push the Air Force to buy remotely piloted Predator drones in the 1990s. The Air Force was at first reluctant, but the program was fueled by pressure from local lawmakers, such as Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) and now retired Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands).
The technology is now a centerpiece in the Obama administration's national security strategy.
Although drones have been a major part of Air Force operations for more than a decade, the Navy has yet to experience such a robotic revolution.