The Pentagon's airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is beginning to erode under the assault of aging aircraft, advanced sensors that overload data links, new cybervulnerabilities and shrinking budgets.

“ISR is really becoming a crisis,” says a senior U.S. Air Force official with daily insight into those programs. “We're only talking about the future conceptually, because there is no new cash. There's not even the money to continue to fly legacy systems.”

ISR, electronic warfare and cyberoperations—which are inextricably linked both technically and operationally—were considered the big favorites in defense budget negotiations, but the last round of cuts to the fiscal 2013 budget request and the potential for more reductions by year-end are threatening even the most needed programs.

“As large manned aircraft age out—particularly the E-3B AWACS and E-8C Joint Stars and some of the others—we are not going to be able to sustain them,” the Air Force official says. “We're running out of avionics and engines on those airplanes. The RC-135 fleet [Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball and Combat Sent] is fine, but the other platforms are in trouble. We don't have a solution in the near term due to the budget crisis. There are no good options or new money. People are struggling to find a way forward. It's going to cause a change in how they do operations.”

If there is a solution, it will most certainly be linked to families of smaller unmanned aircraft that quickly change a variety of payloads that can be applied with great flexibility. And with the notion that next-generation adversaries will have advanced air defenses, they must be able to take losses without interrupting the flow of intelligence and targeting information.

“The vision is that you can quickly modify another airframe [to replace any loss] to take over and provide the same data,” the official says. “That's why the Air Force is sinking its money into advanced sensors for ISR and electronic attack. Rather than single aircraft, it will embrace the swarm concept. I think there will be two components: stealthy combat UAVs and then a non-stealthy truck that we can build in large numbers, rather than hoping they will survive. These things are robots and you program your computers to run the robots and let them do their job. You need systems that can land on less-than-finished runways. That's not hard if you keep them small.”

However, not everyone, particularly those involved in cyberoperations, thinks that small unmanned, networked, autonomous platforms are going to be on the battlefield anytime soon.

“First, small UAVs can't carry big sensors to provide wide-area surveillance,” says a long-time military and industry veteran of network combat. “Second, as a cyberwarrior, I relish the swarm concept, and someday it may be viable. But distributed arrays are not the near-term solution.”

Another issue is that extensive, roll-on, roll-off sensor packages for large, manned aircraft are not yet available for operations.

“The Navy has developed a [Boeing 737-based] P-3 replacement and there is an [airborne early warning and control] 737 version which Australia and Turkey are buying,” the cyberwarfare specialist says. “Neither are roll-on or roll-off, but they are highly integrated sensors.”

In fact, the Navy is doing the groundwork to offer joint-buy alternatives for both large, manned aircraft and smaller unmanned designs—stealthy and conventional—that could be attractive to the Air Force and international customers.

That could provide solutions for the economic and technology crises facing both services that, in addition to airframe shortfalls, include the new dimensions of cyberattack and clogged communications.

More of the available defense dollars are being spent on software that protects networks from invasion via sensors. The Navy's Boeing multi-mission P-8 airframe and a new generation of unmanned aircraft with open architecture and roll-on, roll-off sensor packages can take the place of specialized designs.

Perhaps most notably, the active, electronically scanned arrays (AESA) that have exponentially increased the range and power of radar and electronic attack systems in the last two decades are now being specialized for the massive transfer of data in fractions of a second—too fast for capture and analysis.

Large, thin, flexible arrays are under development that can be applied to wings and fuselages in order to function as directional communications devices that can send huge amounts of data in split seconds. That eliminates the danger of heat buildup and provides a foe with only an extremely fleeting blip of electronic activity that would likely be useless for detecting the source.

Technical advances are very closely held by aerospace companies, but key buzz words include “one-half and one-quarter duplex” as a way to speed data transmissions. Dynamic diversity schemes specifically use phased-array antenna systems to take advantage of beam-forming, multiple-input/multiple-output communications and space-time coding. The whole active array will be dedicated to a high transmission rate—what specialists describe as a “real fat pipe”—for an extremely limited amount of time in a very specific direction.

Another requirement for using this type of rapid communications will be acceptance of the fact that all data coming into or out of the systems has to be encrypted and decrypted and examined for and cleaned of malware for penetration or exploitation before entering or leaving the ISR network.

“That was not done before,” says an aerospace industry AESA specialist. “Rapid encryption and decryption on network is the newest challenge. However, the industry has solved the multi-level security issue and that will help with communications between stealth aircraft and the rest of the force.”

While AESA, because of its wide field of view and frequency range, is subject to cyber or other types of electronic attack, it “is no more or less vulnerable than sensors” that are networked to operate in other parts of the electro-optical, infrared, radio frequency or other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. All will require cybersecurity.

“You will have to encrypt everything if you are going to connect and share information in a high-risk environment,” the AESA specialist says.

The Navy appears to have pulled off a coup with its hot P-8 patrol aircraft production line by offering not only a flying design compatible with 6,000 Boeing 737s operating around the world, but also a range of advanced, easily swapped sensors that can conduct air-to-air, air-to-ground, maritime and electronic surveillance.

Asked about conversations between the Air Force and Navy, Rear Adm. Donald Gaddis, program executive officer for tactical aviation, declares that “nobody is talking to me” about a joint program. Industry officials say that is true at Gaddis's level, but there are, in fact, ongoing conversations among Boeing, the Air Force and the Navy concerning the P-8 design as a truck for roll-on, roll-off sensor systems that could take on the AWACS and JointStars surface surveillance missions. They point to Australia's Wedgetail aircraft, which is packed with a variety of sensors that go well beyond the AWACS mission.

“The Navy has moved out on the P-8 and the Air Force needs an airframe refresh,” says the AESA specialist. “A partnership for new airframes—a group buy—would provide part of the cost tradeoff. With new aircraft, everything is better in the long run. You can add new sensor suites, and AESA [capabilities] are evolving which could provide better solutions for AWACS [air radar surveillance] and JointStars [ground radar surveillance] and data transmission. That way, the Air Force won't have to give up roles and missions. Without the requirement to fight two major regional conflicts, roles and missions will be a problem, but they are probably not broken [enough to require cross-service reallocation].”

One aircraft type on which it appears the Air Force and Navy may not agree is the replacement for the EP-3E Aries II and RC-135W Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft.

Navy officials envision the mission of electronic surveillance being split up—based on pertinent segments of the electromagnetic spectrum—among the P-8 patrol aircraft and the unmanned Broad Area Maritime Surveillance, Fire Scout and Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System (Uclass) designs. They also say the P-8 is not big enough to carry the entire payload required for a next-generation specialized signals-, communications- and cyberintelligence-gathering aircraft.

With no specialized platform to assume the Navy's EP-3E's role, the Air Force has few options for an RC-135W replacement. Some aerospace officials advocate a shift to business-jet-size aircraft such as Britain's Sentinel R1 or the Gulfstream modified by Israel Aerospace Industries' Elta Group for Israel, but their small size would require multiple aircraft to conduct the same mission as a Rivet Joint. So, the Air Force's quandary remains.

Pentagon ISR Budget Trends ($ millions)
2012 Request 2012 Appropriation 2013 Request
P-8A Poseidon $2,019 $2,009 $2,421
MQ-1 Predator 3 3 4
MQ-1C Gray Eagle 659 551 518
RQ-4 Global Hawk 324 324 75
MQ-4C BAMS 548 548 658
MQ-8 Fire Scout 192 192 125
MQ-9 Reaper 813 720 554
U-2 49 49 0
Source: Aviation Week Intelligence Network