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US general pushes for unmanned vehicles
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Aug 11, 2009

US may arm Afghan air corps with drones: general
The US military is looking at eventually equipping Afghanistan's air corps with unmanned aircraft for surveillance missions, a general said on Wednesday. "Right now, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are not part of that capability that we are envisioning for them," said US Brigadier General Walter Givhan, who is helping Kabul revive its air force. "However, I think it fits into that category of things that, as we continue to develop and we get the basics down, that we look at adding to their portfolio," Givhan said by video link. The US military wanted to ensure the small air force could carry out reconnaissance and surveillance missions but those tasks would be carried out initially with manned aircraft, he said. For tracking and hunting down insurgents, drones have become an invaluable asset for the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Givhan said Afghanistan had an urgent need to deploy manned aircraft that could ferry troops and supplies in a country with rugged terrain and poor roads. The Afghans were also working to train new pilots, with dozens of pilots due to receive instruction in the United States. The average age of air force's pilots -- trained during the Soviet era -- is 45. The Afghan army's air corps currently has 36 aircraft and 2,700 airmen. Washington's goal was to raise the fleet to 139 aircraft with 7,250 airmen by 2016, Givhan said. The plan to revive the country's air force is part of a wider US-led effort to train and equip Afghan security forces to fight the Taliban and allied insurgents. At the moment, the US military largely provides air power for Afghan forces. The US-led invasion to oust the Taliban regime in 2001 finished off the last remnants of the Soviet-built air force, which at its peak boasted a fleet of more than 350 aircraft, including fighter jets and bombers.

Poland considering buying Israeli drones: defence minister
Poland is considering buying drones from Israel, Defence Minister Bogdan Klich said Wednesday, after Warsaw's announcement that it was bolstering its deployment in Afghanistan. Klich told reporters he had recently travelled to Israel to visit arms manufacturers. "Three companies there produce top-quality pilotless aircraft," he said. "Without predicting which of the three -- or even another, non-Israeli firm -- will win the tender, I can't imagine that we'll buy them one by one. We're going to buy a whole range of drones, from short- to medium-range," he added. Poland currently has 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan fighting Taliban-led militants under the banner of the NATO-run International Security Assistance Force, which draws together around 64,500 troops from more than 40 nations. Drones, armed with lethal missiles and controlled by a "pilot" using a joystick at bases in the United States and elsewhere, have become an American weapon of choice in the fight against the militants. On Monday, one Polish soldier was killed and four were injured during a clash in Afghanistan's central province of Ghazni. It was Warsaw's 10th fatality since it first sent troops to Afghanistan in 2002. On Tuesday, Poland said it had created a back-up force of 200 soldiers ready for deployment in Afghanistan. Poland, a former communist country turned staunch ally of Washington, joined NATO in 1999 and has over the years gradually upgraded its military equipment.

As pilotless US drones do battle from the sky in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, a top US Army general is urging the military to step up the deployment of unmanned vehicles on the ground.

"It's all about saving lives," said Lieutenant General Rick Lynch, the commander of the III Armored Corps and the holder of a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

"There's got to be a sense of urgency," Lynch told delegates on Tuesday at an exhibition here featuring manufacturers from around the world of unmanned ground, maritime, air and space systems.

While serving in Iraq, Lynch said he lost a total of 153 soldiers under his command and "80 percent of those soldiers didn't have to die."

"I am so tired of going to demonstrations of technology," he said. "The technology is there. We've got to get past the demonstrations and into the field."

"If you're not fielding, you're failing," he said.

The US military makes extensive use of unmanned drones against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq both for surveillance and launching missile strikes.

But ground operations are mostly limited to the use of small camera-equipped robots to detect improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Lynch, who also commands Fort Hood, Texas, the largest US military base in the world, said aerial surveillance and weapons systems were useful but "the bad guys know that if the weather turns bad we can't see them from the air."

He said among the "immediate applications" for unmanned vehicles were route clearance, surveillance and in convoys.

"We're going to be fighting this war on terror for the next 10 years and the enemy's weapon of choice is the IED," he said. "It is today and it will be in the future."

Lynch said unmanned vehicles exist which are "excellent at clearing routes," which can go from point A to point B and even detect and avoid obstacles.

"Let's get those kids out of the vehicles," he said.

The general said unmanned vehicles should also be deployed to carry out what he called "persistent stare."

"The bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan, they've got their favorite places where they want to place their IEDS," he said.

When aerial surveillance is not available, "we watch those IED hotspots with human beings, which puts them at risk," he said.

Unmanned robots can "watch these IED hotspots for extended periods of time ... and kill those bad guys before they can plant the IEDs," he said.

Lynch said the technology exists to use unmanned vehicles in convoys, as lead or trailing vehicles, for example, cutting down on the number of drivers and the risks.

"We're losing so many soldiers in convoys it's an embarrassment," he said. "Why does every vehicle have to be occupied by a human being?"

He said an unmanned vehicle could also be used as a "robotic wingman" -- a fighting platform which mirrors the actions of a manned vehicle.

Lynch invited participants in the exhibition, sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), to attend a September 1-3 "Robotics Rodeo" that he is holding at Fort Hood.

"Bring your systems to Fort Hood and allow the soldiers who just got back from combat to use them," he said. "They'll tell you 'This is going to work. I know that ain't going to work.'"


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