By Sandra I. Erwin
The Predator drones that for a decade have been the weapons of choice of the U.S. military soon will be démodé. As the Pentagon prepares an ambitious “air-sea battle” plan to face well-armed adversaries in Asia or the Middle East, it is shopping for more sophisticated spy aircraft that can survive in hostile airspace and stay aloft for days without being detected.
“We need to persist over the battle space and be survivable,” said Mark Gunzinger, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
In the world of military strategy, the so-called ISR mission (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) has over the past decade been elevated from a support role to an essential component of any military operation. The performance of ISR systems can be just as important to the outcome of a conflict as bombs and bullets.
The preponderance of current ISR equipment, however, is not suitable for war in contested airspace where enemies might deploy surface-to-air missiles, radar and other air defenses. The Pentagon already has begun to slow down purchases of Air Force Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, and is looking for both the Air Force and the Navy to invest in stealthier, high-altitude long-endurance systems.
That transition is likely to take many years and, according to analysts, could shift the ISR balance of power from the Air Force to the Navy.
The U.S. Navy has embarked on an ambitious plan to modernize its surveillance aircraft fleet in the coming decade. It is buying a mix of advanced manned and unmanned spy aircraft that could put the Navy on equal standing with the Air Force as a key provider of tactical and strategic intelligence for the United States.
The centerpieces of the Navy’s ISR fleet — the P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance jet and the unmanned RQ-4 broad area maritime surveillance aircraft — are on track to possibly outpace the Air Force’s capabilities, said aerospace industry consultant Rebecca Grant.
The Navy has “quietly and orderly proceeded with programs that are going to give it 200 ISR aircraft,” Grant said.
The Obama administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2013 includes funding for 83 P-8s and 16 RQ-4s. The projected size of the P-8 fleet is 115 and the R-Q4 BMAS should reach 68 aircraft. The Navy also is seeking to buy other surveillance drones over the next five years, including 34 MQ-8 unmanned helicopters and 15 smaller UAVs.
Grant said it is entirely possible that the Navy will end up with a more advanced ISR fleet than the Air Force, particularly if the Air Force follows through on its recent decision to terminate the acquisition of 26 RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk UAVs and, instead, acquire 11 Block 40 variants.
Former Chief of Staff of the Air Force retired Gen. Ronald Fogleman told a recent gathering of Air Force contractors that he worried that the Navy might be in a stronger position to handle high-altitude, long-endurance ISR missions in Asia-Pacific than the Air Force, which historically has been responsible for that task. “This is something to watch,” Fogleman said.
Grant, who wrote a study that criticizes the Air Force for walking away from the Block 30 aircraft and for not having a plan to replace aging E-8 Joint Stars manned surveillance planes, said that if the Navy’s ISR fleet continues to grow, it might have to fill the gap left by the Air Force. “As they become the largest ISR fleet, will Navy assets be available for global tasking?” she asked.
The Air Force, Grant said, could be ceding an important national security role to the Navy as intelligence agencies and regional military commanders heighten demand for overhead imagery and video.
The Air Force operates more than 200 Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft, but those fly at lower altitudes and have less endurance than Global Hawk or BAMS.
“The UAV force we have today isn’t what we need for air-sea battle or for war in the Gulf,” said Gunzinger. “I imagine people at the Pentagon are worried about where they are going to park all the Predators and Reapers that they have coming back from the wars.”
Military officials have sought to downplay any potential turf battle between the services and have hinted that, in the face of shrinking budgets, it might be time for more “joint ISR” efforts in the future.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said there is room in the high-altitude ISR world for both the Navy and the Air Force. “I think that [Chief of Naval Operations Adm.] Jon Greenert will tell you that he can’t do both the maritime P-8 mission and the entire GMTI [Ground Moving Target Indicator] mission overland,” he told a recent conference at the Stimson Center, in Washington, D.C.
Regardless of which service operates what aircraft, economic realities might call for more efficiency in ISR operations. Analysts have suggested it might be time for Navy and Air Force to combine their assets and continue to do their ISR missions but for less cost.
A study by the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security proposed, as one of many cost-cutting recommendations for the entire Defense Department, that the Navy reduce its BAMS buy by 50 percent, and rely more on Air Force Global Hawk Block 40. CNAS analysts said there is too much “unnecessary redundancy” in high-altitude ISR programs.
An even bigger money saver would be to transition ISR missions from pricey UAVs to airships, said Frost & Sullivan aerospace and defense industry analyst Mike Blades. High-altitude vehicles such as Global Hawk have grown far more expensive than the military initially forecast, he said. Global Hawk, in its genesis, was about building a $10 million drone that could do the job of a $100 million manned aircraft. But as more features and sensors were added to the vehicle, its price tag soared to $85 million. According to a Government Accountability Office report, its true cost (including research and development) is more than $200 million a copy.
“Lighter than air dirigibles are cheaper and can stay up for days. That’s the kind of thing you’re going to see,” said Blades. The Navy’s BAMS can stay on station for up to 34 hours.
Both the Air Force and the Navy should consider alternative systems for high-altitude ISR, he said.
Boeing Phantom Works, for instance, unveiled a Phantom Eye UAV that promises up to four days of endurance at 65,000 feet (about the same as Global Hawk).
Another contender is AeroVironment’s Global Observer, which flies at 65,000 feet for five to seven days
Several companies, such as Lockheed Martin, MAV6 and Northrop Grumman, are developing unmanned airships for long- to extremely-long endurance missions of more than 30 days.