Reversing a trend of rising budgetary support that was well established even a year ago, the field of airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is now suffering the hammer blows of aging aircraft, overloaded datalinks, emerging cyber vulnerabilities and shrinking defense budgets.

“ISR is really becoming a crisis,” says a senior Air Force official with daily insight into those programs. “There is no new cash. There’s not even the money to continue to fly legacy systems.”

ISR, electronic warfare and cyber operations — 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’s end are threatening even the most successful 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,” he 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 may be linked to development of families of smaller unmanned aircraft that can quickly change out a variety of payloads that can be applied with great flexibility. And with the possibility that next-generation opponents 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 Air Force 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 cyber operations, think 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 longtime military and industry veteran of network warfare. “Second, as a cyber warrior I relish the swarm concept, and someday it may be viable.”