The U.S. Air Force still has impressive plans for the future, including tying space and cyber operations more tightly into its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operation. Driving that decision is the statistic that more than 90% of cyber intrusions are actually intelligence-gathering efforts.

However, near-term initiatives are showing a negative impact on ISR due to falling defense budgets and operational reassessments, particularly in a post-Afghanistan period. Concerns are now focusing on how to conduct operations in less-permissive airspace where a foe employs anti-access and aerial denial (A2AD) weapons and sensors.

A critical eye is being cast on the value of high-altitude, long-dwell ISR platforms, for example.

“Does more altitude buy you survivability, or does persistence provide a radical improvement in the ability to collect intelligence?” says Lt. Gen. Larry James, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff and former director of signals intelligence for the National Reconnaissance Office. “I don’t think we know the answer.”

The Air Force will also examine the usefulness of small, unmanned aircraft in the more lethal A2AD world.

“Do nano or swarming remotely piloted aircraft buy you anything in that environment?” James says. “Those are things we’ll have to sort out.”

New decisions and studies already involve the Global Hawk, special missions aircraft, U-2s, airborne radar, ISR bases and next-generation unmanned aircraft programs. The need to field a stealthy aircraft that can both penetrate enemy defenses and persist in the battlespace for a long period appears to be receding for now.

“We may be able to penetrate, but not stay long,” James predicts. “There may be other systems that can stay on in the area [that include space and cyber tools]. Or maybe I improve my sensors so that I can standoff outside the threat. I don’t necessarily think all of those things need to be combined in one platform. I’d say we’re at the early stages of looking at new technologies like hypersonics for ISR platforms, [but] the technology is not there yet.”

The plan to develop a stealth unmanned aircraft, the MQ-X, has dropped out of the budget.

“The Navy is developing capability in that domain,” James says. “We want to see how that plays out before we make any decisions on next-generation platforms. The Predator C Avenger is a platform we intend to use for test and evaluation.”

Those inputs and a series of upgrades to the already operational Reaper unmanned aircraft will guide decisions on new-start programs.

Ground Moving Target Indicator technology for the E-8C Joint-Stars airborne radar and Global Hawk block 40 programs will continue and impact fiscal 2014 budget plans. In addition, extra attention will be paid to special mission aircraft in the Air Force’s 55th Wing, which includes RC-135 Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball and Combat Sent.

“There is an analysis of alternatives-like activity to look at those special missions to determine the best solutions for airframes and sensors,” James says.

Sensor mix

The decision to terminate the Global Hawk block 30 program and extend the life of manned U-2 aircraft is still reverberating in the Pentagon. There is no connection between that decision and the loss of a stealthy RQ-170 in Iran, James says. The primary factors were performance and cost.

“In the last year, the Joint Staff changed the high-altitude requirements for the U-2 and Global Hawk,” James says. “Based on that, the U-2 can meet the requirement for capabilities.

As to the sensor mix, the U-2 performance is better in the electro-optical and infrared [slices of the electromagnetic spectrum] and the capacity to get signals intelligence off the bird is better. It was a fiscal decision. We could invest in the U-2 and save dollars by terminating Global Hawk.

“The U-2 is viable into the 2020s and well beyond,” James says. “We are in the middle of upgrading the cockpit so it will have pressurization. That avoids things like pre-breathing.” New capabilities, like a hyper-spectral sensor to scan new parts of the spectrum for data, also are planned.

However, no one has yet figured out what to do with the newly built Global Hawk facilities.

“We have facilities in Guam and Italy, and frankly we’re in the middle of planning how to remove those assets and what the status of the bases will be,” James says.