A potential rebalancing of the U.S. Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) spending plans could follow in the footsteps of the service’s earlier work to craft a “family of systems” concept for long-range strike, according to Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.

“As the overall budget comes down, we will have to get a little bit more discriminating about how we set priorities for ISR development,” he tells Aviation Week.

A re-examination of the ISR portfolio, led by the Air Force’s intelligence office, is already under way. Donley says it will be due in the fall in time to advise senior leaders on major budget decisions. The fiscal 2013 budget will go to Congress in February.

Depending on the outcome of the national debt-reduction talks this fall, the Pentagon could be forced to trim 5-10% from its budget. This is driving the Defense Department to run an unusually brutal series of budget drills across all of its major investment programs.

Only three years ago, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates scolded the Air Force for being slow to respond with ISR support for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq; he subsequently established an ISR Task Force to manage quick-reaction programs for deployment to the field to circumvent the traditional acquisition system. “I’ve been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater,” he said during a speech at the Air War College then. “Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it’s been like pulling teeth.”

As a result, the Air Force significantly boosted its investment in General Atomics Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Additionally, the service began the MC-12 Project Liberty program, which called for L-3 Communications to outfit Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ERs with electro-optical, infrared and signals intelligence sensors bound for Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I see the need to focus on [affordability] in ISR, which has been a growth area and where we have focused on the introduction of leading-edge technologies quickly to support conflicts,” Donley says. “We had a successful engagement with the secretary of defense last year on the bomber because the Air Force took a very holistic approach and took the time to do a detailed evaluation of the choices and make a balanced judgment. We’re using that model for the ISR review.”

The bomber discussion grew out of a plan by Gates to table the program until the Air Force had reviewed its options. The acquisition strategy has not been publicly revealed, but Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has said the resulting platform will not be a “lone wolf,” meaning it must connect with other platforms in the family of systems to execute its mission. This could dramatically reduce the requirements for the forthcoming bomber, as well as the cost.

“The focus is on cost consciousness, on affordability, on settling down program content,” Donley says. “We tried to be very disciplined in how we approached that [on the] tanker program, and we focused very carefully on this on the bomber program.”

Major questions

There are some major questions looming for the ISR portfolio. The Air Force has yet to make a decision on a long-running debate about whether to pour more money into re-engining the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JStars) and upgrade its ground-surveillance radar or find another solution – possibly the Global Hawk or a Boeing 737-based design – for the mission. Northrop Grumman leads both the JStars and Global Hawk UAS programs.

Also in question is whether and when to begin retiring the U-2 fleet as the high-flying Global Hawk UAS continues to mature. This has been a standing debate in the Air Force.

It is also unclear how interested the service is in extremely long-endurance UAS systems that can fly for days or weeks, far longer than the Reaper and Global Hawks deployed today. Also, the Air Force has explored concepts for a Reaper replacement but has yet to articulate final requirements or a procurement schedule.