The U.S. Air Force is finding that even seemingly small decisions are garnering heightened scrutiny—and resistance—from Congress.

And, this could limit its ability to efficiently rescope and resize its intelligence collection aircraft fleet after the Afghanistan war winds down.

This conundrum is evident in the debate over the fate of the Air Force's ongoing lease with Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), which owns and has been operating four so-called Blue Devil 1 intelligence collection aircraft previously in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.

The lease for these aircraft, which are highly praised by soldiers in the war, runs out in September. The question is whether the service will continue to provide the Blue Devil 1 capability and if so, how. Operations in Afghanistan are expected to continue only through 2014. So, at issue is about 18 months of potential service. The Blue Devil 1 lease costs about $800,000 annually, with the pilots, intelligence analysts and maintenance experts costing approximately $80 million annually, according to an Air Force official.

Some senior Air Force officials are eager to shed their commitment to the program in favor of higher priorities as they plan for a reduced force structure in the future and to meet near-term fiscal constraints. But, Blue Devil has become popular with commanders abroad and Congress is unwilling to pull something out of the war if soldiers say they like it.

Three options are on the table: terminating the program altogether after the lease runs out by not renewing it; leasing additional service (an option Congress finds unpalatable) or buying the small fleet outright, which would cost about $12 million, according to a defense official. Some in the Air Force are also suggesting that the Reaper—equipped with the new Gorgon Stare wide area surveillance system that will be deployed this spring—is an alternative to continuing with Blue Devil 1.

“Is the capability of Blue Devil so critical and [is there] no other way to do it [such] that I have to keep Blue Devil? I believe [the answer] is no,” says Gen. Michael Hostage, Air Combat Command chief. “I will keep that capability until the warfighter is done in 2014. I wanted to just rent them, but I got beaten up because Congress doesn't like us leasing things.” Hostage says that the fate of Blue Devil 1 is one of the many issues being explored as the Air Force studies what should be the future intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) force structure.

Congress allowed for the original lease because Blue Devil 1 was considered critical for an urgent operational need; it was called for at the height of the Iraq war as soldiers in the field were struggling to find and disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

However, Congress generally frowns on leases because they can cost more than buying a fleet outright and organically operating it.

Through the arrangement, SAIC owns and operates the fleet of four modified Beechcraft King Air 90s and delivers the intelligence to users in Iraq. At the time the lease was crafted, commanders were demanding far more intelligence collection than the Pentagon could organically provide. Specifically, Blue Devil 1 brought a much-needed wide-area-motion imagery (WAMI) capability to commanders in the region.

Blue Devil 1 was built on work spearheaded by the U.S. Marine Corps' Angel Fire and the Army's Constant Hawk systems. All of these were designed to provide “forensic intelligence,” allowing operators to see an event—such as an IED exploding—and track it back through time using stored data to find its origin. According to military officials, these systems helped find terrorists planting IEDs and their assembly sites.

Blue Devil 1 improved the capability with the addition of a day/night camera that could operate using infrared optics.

In the case of Blue Devil, however, Air Force officials never intended to keep the system in the fleet beyond the war in Afghanistan. This is unlike the debate a decade ago over whether to lease aerial refuelers, which were projected to remain in service for decades. By contrast, the service considers this a short-term need for which it is willing to pay SAIC a modest $6 million to remove the specialized intelligence equipment after the mission ends; leases typically call for the customer to “demod” special mission equipment after the service term expires.

SAIC officials declined an interview request on the subject. They released a statement saying that “SAIC and its teammates have worked with the USAF since 2012 to develop, deploy and demonstrate advanced ISR concepts as part of the Blue Devil program. We are working with the USAF to define plans for Blue Devil's continued support of operations in theater through the end of the mission.” SAIC CEO Air Force Gen. (ret.) John Jumper says the system is “one that is in great demand over there [and] is very unique.”

The catch for the Air Force is less about what to do right now and more about what long-term cost there may be as a result of the decision. Because Blue Devil 1 is contractor-owned and operated, the service has no logistics support for the system, no parts supply chain and no trained support staff. All of these require money to stand up and sustain at a time when the service is being told to trim its costs.

“Buying it versus leasing it? It is close to a wash,” Hostage told Aviation Week during the annual Air Force Association symposium last month. “My view was, if I lease it, it is clean when I'm done.” By that, Hostage means that the service can pay to remove the intelligence equipment and end its relationship with SAIC on the deal, removing the financial obligation from his books.

“If I buy it . . . I'd like to put them in the boneyard [after Afghanistan operations end], but I guarantee you somebody will come after me and say, 'Wait a minute, we already bought those systems, let's keep them going.' Then I'm struggling to operate a . . . niche capability that doesn't have a program to it,” Hostage says.

Though a short, continued lease makes sense to the service brass, they may not propose it in the upcoming fiscal 2014 budget because of appearances. They don't want to be seen as abandoning support for forward-deployed soldiers, even as the war winds down. It was only a few short years ago that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly upbraided the service for being too slow in getting Predator unmanned aircraft to the fight in relevant numbers.

And, service officials are afraid to anger Congress by proposing a short-term lease to get them through upcoming operations.

Though the math to lease or buy is indeed a financial wash, as Hostage said, the issue is what comes after. If the service is forced to properly support a tiny fleet of four aircraft, it will have to fund specialized parts, training and support that Hostage suggests will not be germane to the kind of fight most likely to take place in the future involving sophisticated air defenses.

“For a decade now we have built the most incredible permissive [ISR] capacity and capability anybody has ever seen,” Hostage said. “I'm being forced to build a capacity I know I can't sustain [and] I know I don't need.”

The Air Force is now trying to refocus its efforts on operating in contested or even more dicey denied airspace. This requires the use of significant standoff capabilities or penetrating intelligence collection, as is being done with the recently declassified RQ-170 UAS.

Blue Devil 1 can collect using the day/night WAMI capability, a communications intelligence sensor, a signals intelligence sensor and full-motion video. These capabilities are singly or in combination offered by other Air Force systems, such as the Predator and Reaper unmanned air systems or MC-12W Project Liberty aircraft.

The magic of the Blue Devil 1 is in the processing, exploitation and dissemination of the intelligence collected by the aircraft, the defense official says. Blue Devil is the first system that truly allows an operator to use one sensor in real time to tip off another for target validation, he says. Though some Air Force systems offer a similar capability today, they require more human intervention in the target validation process. With Blue Devil 1, it is more seamless, he says.

Steven Walker, deputy assistant secretary of science, technology and engineering for the Air Force, credited Blue Devil 1 as “instrumental in identifying a number of high-value individuals and improvised explosive device emplacements” since December 2012.

One defense official offers another option on the Blue Devil 1 issue, however. Perhaps the functionality of Blue Devil 1 can be provided by another platform, he says. He declined to be identified owing to the sensitivity of the subject and secrecy of budget discussions.

This official notes that many of the capabilities are now employed on the Predator/Reaper fleet. And, with some processing and exploitation tools and training, the growing fleet of these UAS might be able to address the need. And, he notes, these fleets have on-station durations of a day or more, whereas the manned King Air 90s are limited to 4-5 hr. on station with down time for refueling and crew changes.

The Air Force is already struggling with the idea of what to do with its fleet of these UAS after the war. Gates publicly chided the Air Force for not reaching his desired 50 combat air patrols (CAP) of Predator/Reapers and then upped the requirement to 65 on his way out of office in July 2011.

“No offense to Dr. Gates. There was no intellectual rigor to the number 65. It was a challenge goal: You got 50? Good for you. Now get me 65,” Hostage said, adding the Air Force has now fielded 60 CAPs. “In terms of a sustainable force structure and a force structure relevant to the world I have to face, it [65 CAPs] is the wrong answer. So, there is a very deep intellectual debate ongoing right now on what is the right mix of capability . . . that I need for the future. I can tell you without a shred of doubt that my current number—I'm at 60 CAPS now—iis too many.”

Hostage acknowledges that the Predators and Reapers are and continue to be valuable in the hunt for terrorists and in supporting soldiers in Afghanistan and other hot spots. But, his concern is how suitable this fleet will be for a future in which permissive airspace is not the norm. “I have more capability in the permissive environment than I know I can keep,” he says. Sixty-five CAPs “was a requirement we met, but it is not in the grand scheme of things an enduring capability.”

“It is not in the panoply of things that we want to keep.”