The U.S. Air Force's fleet of intelligence-collection aircraft—from the high-flying U-2 to a bevy of newer unmanned vehicles and mainstay Boeing 707-based platforms—has undergone substantial change owing to a funding windfall and urgent requirements since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Ten years later, though, the service is at the precipice of a series of decisions that will influence the shape of a smaller intelligence force structure that must endure and meet the demands of a variety of threats for decades to come.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley says the service is weighing its choices for the future intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) fleet mix. A sweeping study of options should be complete within weeks, and its findings will inform decisions on what intel programs to cut in the fiscal 2013 budget going to Congress in February. Changes in this portfolio could total in the billions over the next five years as the Air Force weighs a variety of tiered choices from the least invasive to more draconian reductions that will be enacted if Congress fails to pass a debt-reduction plan.

The tradeoff studies are not unique to the intelligence fleet; they are under way for all Air Force disciplines. For example, despite proclaiming that no alternative to the stealthy, single-engine and expensive F-35 exists, Donley acknowledges that even this massive program, which he identifies as critical, is not safe from scrutiny. “We will noodle on F-35 details at the margins to find that right balance” between stabilizing production at Lockheed Martin and continuing to execute the development contract.

But the intelligence portfolio is one that has so many varied capabilities—including platforms, sensors and ground-based processing architectures—that it is perhaps the area most demanding of oversight and realignment. “At one point last year, I counted 13 different modernization or enhancement programs in the ISR capability,” Donley said at the Air Force Association conference here. “In a declining budget environment, we are going to have be more careful and more discriminating in the choices that we make.”

Necking down the ISR portfolio could be a tough sell for the Air Force, which was publicly chided by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates only a few short years ago for lackluster ISR support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only days before leaving office, Gates penned a memo praising the service for progress but demanding yet another increase in MQ-9 Reaper purchases—to more than 80 from 65 combat air patrols' worth of the General Atomics unmanned aircraft system (UAS). However, with Gates gone, some service officials say they feel a new freedom to at least begin studying the issue; a proposal for ISR reductions under his guidance would have been dismissed outright, they say.

An example of Gates's diminished influence is that Donley did not back the proposal to increase the Reaper buy. “That matter has continued to be under debate; it will continue to be under debate this fall, especially in the context of the budget. . . . We do not want to step back from progress we have made,” Donley says, though he stopped short of proclaiming a new plan for Reaper purchases.

Some Air Force and industry officials note that simply buying more platforms lacks balance. “As we go forward, we need to fill in behind on the sensor issues, the infrastructure development, the command-and-control and the communications pieces, [and] we know that we have challenges in keeping up with the processing, exploitation and dissemination,” says Donley. Likewise, the Air Force has taken on the small MC-12W Project Liberty fleet and the responsibilities for maintaining and manning it. While platform makers may see a downturn in new business, the sensor providers could see an uptick in interest in modular sensors and incremental upgrades for those aircraft already purchased.

The Air Force is not simply weighing one platform versus another in its budget decisions, but also the cost of buying certain platforms against the price of maintaining them and providing trained manpower and proper information dissemination tools.

However, the fight over which platforms gain funding and which ones lose is likely to be hotly debated. Contractors are already posturing to make the case for continued money—although in some cases two programs backed by the same company could be pitted against each other to vie for funds.

Such is the situation with the future ground-surveillance fleet. Officials will likely be forced to make a decision, at least in the short term, on whether to pump more funding into the Joint Stars fleet or the Global Hawk Block 40 UAS—both produced by Northrop Grumman. The company has long backed both efforts, but a sweeping ground-surveillance analysis of alternatives is wrapping up and could force a tough decision on the part of the Air Force. Northrop may find it hard to continue backing both projects in a fiscal environment where defense programs are likely to get axed. Global Hawk, however, has had its share of cost overruns; if other programs are cut in its favor, Northrop will have to continue to execute production and development without repeating blunders.

Likewise, the Air Force may find it hard to continue arguing for millions of dollars to replace the engines—and potentially the massive surveillance radar—on the Joint Stars fleet. Several industry executives acknowledge that Joint Stars modernization could be among the low-hanging fruit ripe for a cut in the ISR portfolio.

Although cost is not likely to be the only item put under the microscope, a Pentagon review of alternatives to Global Hawk that was sent to Congress in June has some raw numbers that could be considered in upcoming decisions. Pentagon officials estimate that the Joint Stars fleet costs $650 million per year more to operate than the Global Hawk for equal coverage. Global Hawk, however, lacks a command-and-control capability that is fielded on the Joint Stars.

Also likely to be addressed is a retirement plan for the high-flying Lockheed Martin U-2, especially in light of continued fielding of the Global Hawk, which can now collect imagery and signals intelligence (sigint). The two programs have fought over funding from the Air Force for more than a decade, but financial pressures on the Pentagon could finally force the service to stick to a retirement plan for the U-2, even though combatant commanders continue to request the venerable aircraft for key missions in the Middle East and near North Korea.

“When analyzed in the context of the Global Hawk mission, the U-2 costs $220 million per year more than the Global Hawk,” the Pentagon cost analysis says.

While Joint Stars may be a hard sell, many industry executives note that the Rivet Joint sigint-collection fleet could escape unscathed because it has been updated through a rotating depot-maintenance program; both its mission systems and structure are maintained by L-3 Communications.

Service officials must also assess the need for a wide-area surveillance capability, such as the Gorgon Stare system, which is capable of collecting wide swaths of full-motion video, against the price of developing and fielding it. Likewise the Pentagon as a whole must determine what to do with a bevy of Task Force Odin aircraft—small, special-mission intelligence collectors operated by various services—as war activities draw down. Options range from stripping their sensors off and selling the airframes, maintaining them in a warm status for potential deployment in the future or, possibly, continuing to deploy them. These small fleets, while highly effective in the war, are difficult to manage owing to specialized training and maintenance needs.

Budget drills conducted at this time of the year typically explore a variety of scenarios. This year, however, Air Force and industry officials suggest these drills are weighing even more dramatic cuts than usual—such as outright retirement of mainstay fleets such as the U-2 and Rivet Joint. Even if they are simply drills, their tone signals the mounting pressure on the Pentagon to slash its costs.