INTELLIGENCE AND SURVEILLANCE
Air Force to Divest U-2, Global Hawk Block 40 Should Sequestration Return
By Sarah Sicard
The Air Force wants to keep both its U-2 spy planes and Global Hawk Block 40 unmanned aerial vehicles, but if sequestration returns in fiscal year 2016, it will not be able to afford either aircraft, the service's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance said.
"Under [the Budget Control Act], we're going to divest the U-2 in fiscal year 16. We're going to divest the Global Hawk Block 40 in fiscal 16, and that's going to leave big gaps in coverage," Lt. Gen. Robert Otto said Feb. 18 at an Air Force Association breakfast.
In past budget requests, the service has proposed retiring the Global Hawk Block 30 and the U-2. However, under its 2016 budget, the Air Force has proposed keeping both aircraft, which perform similar high-altitude missions. The 2015 National Defense Authorization Act directed the Air Force not to make any steps to retire the U-2 this year.
Air Force leaders now plan to hold onto the U-2 until around 2019, but it will have to be retired in 2016 should mandatory budget cuts resume, Otto said.
The smart thing to do is extend the service life of the U-2 and improve the electro-optical sensors on the Global Hawk to make them more in line with what the U-2 carries, he said. The U-2 has clear enough resolution to see at ranges of about 100 miles, while the Global Hawk sees only about 60 miles, he added.
"Clearly, we need to upgrade the electro-optical sensors on the Global Hawk," he said. Otherwise, it cannot perform some of the treaty verification missions that the U-2 currently carries out, he said.
The Air Force has requested for fiscal year 2016 some $10 billion over its Budget Control Act spending cap. The Air Force first proposed retiring the Global Hawk Block 30 in 2012, citing the high cost of operating the aircraft. Congress since then has kept both the U-2 and both blocks of the Global Hawk alive. Since the U-2 and Global Hawks perform similar missions, there has been ongoing debates as to which aircraft is more capable and worth keeping. The U-2 airframe is now more that 50 years old.
"One of the things we've got to do if we're going to divest the U-2 is invest in Global Hawk so it can become the workhorse of our high altitude fleet," Otto said.
"We need to handle not just the counterinsurgency [and] counterterrorism operations, but we need to be able to work in contested and highly contested environments," he said.
There are other options in the event that the Air Force does not receive everything it has asked for in the 2016 budget proposal, he said.
"We could increase the amount we spend on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but that’s going to come at the expense of some other platform," he said. Currently, 75 percent of all ISR assets are engaged, he added.
The F-35 joint strike fighter, KC-46A tanker and the long-range strike bomber programs may be left lacking necessary funds if the Air Force were to allocate more money to ISR spending, he said.
Taking away from any of those areas would hinder the service's ability to maintain air superiority.
"What I'm concerned about is that we may have what can be described as a perfect storm," he said. Currently, there is high demand for compelling surveillance and reconnaissance information, but sequestration and cuts to the overall structure of the force are looming, he noted.