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Military branches battle over drones

Control over use and $12b at stake

WASHINGTON -- The use of unmanned aircraft in Iraq has surged by nearly a third since the buildup of US forces began this year, and drones are now racking up more than 14,000 hours a month in the battlefield skies.

The increase in unmanned aircraft -- from high-altitude Global Hawks to short-range reconnaissance Ravens that soldiers fling into the air -- has fueled a struggle among the military services over who will control their use and the more than $12 billion that will be spent on the programs over the next five years.

The Air Force wants to take over development and purchasing of unmanned aerial vehicles, arguing that it would save money and improve technology and communications.

It also wants more centralized command of the drones, saying better coordination could eliminate airspace conflicts that can endanger US troops.

The other military services see a power grab, and they're fighting it.

The increased use of drones has been caused in part by the military buildup ordered by President Bush to help secure Baghdad and Anbar Province.

The Air Force argument for more central control over how and where the larger, medium- to high-altitude drones are used would affect aircraft flown generally above 3,500 feet.

The Army is opposing the plan. Army officials say unit commanders need to be able to quickly deploy drones, and any additional bureaucracy could cause risky delays.

Pentagon leaders, including Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, are pressing the services to hammer out a compromise. And Navy Admiral Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently met with other top brass to review the Air Force plan.

But finding common ground has proven difficult.

The Pentagon's 2008 budget calls for spending nearly $900 million for five pricey Global Hawks, almost $70 million on 300 Ravens, and close to $700 million on research, development, and procurement of two dozen Predators, four Reapers, and a dozen Sky Warriors.

The Air Force's central control plan would involve the larger drones and not affect the small, shoulder-launched Ravens, which soldiers can send into the air for shorter range, lower altitude surveillance and reconnaissance.