Son of Blackbird on the way? The Air Force is considering a long-range penetrating ISR variant of its next-generation bomber. In that role, the unmanned aircraft would perform missions similar to those of the SR-71 (Wikipedia photo).
Despite the development of reconnaissance drones and improvements in spy satellite technology, an important capability has been missing from the ISR tool chest since 1989, when the SR-71 was retired from the Air Force inventory. We're talking about a intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft that's capable of penetrating a dense air defense environment and return, collecting information that no other platform can provide.
When the Air Force decided to get rid of the Blackbird, it assured law makers, intelligence agencies and combatant commanders that there would be no decrease in imagery support. "We can do it with satellites," the service assured its ISR customers, and besides, there were hints of super-secret, high-tech, razzle-dazzle systems down the road (Aurora, anyone?).
Unfortunately, those promises never really came to fruition. Sure, satellite technology continued to advance, but the number of platforms remained limited. What's worse, adversaries monitored by those systems got better at figuring out when the satellite would be passing overhead, and curtailing their activities during that period. With the advent of the internet, virtually any country could have a crude satellite warning program, utilizing the expertise of amateur astronomers and satellite watchers who post their information on-line.
Here at home, Congress wasn't much help, either. Efforts to develop new generations of low-observable or "clandestine" spy satellites (yes, that's probably an oxymoron) were underfunded or exposed by members of the House and Senate. At last report, Congress had officially killed attempts to build a new series of "Misty" satellites, forcing us to soldier on with existing overhead platforms--the same ones that everyone seems to know about and can predict their passage overhead.
As for UAVs, they offer persistence and growing array of ISR and strike capabilities. But the current generations of Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks aren't particularly stealthy. They would be unable to operate in a sophisticated air defense environment, protected by "double-digit" surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) like the Russian-built SA-20.
In a speech last summer, the head of Air Combat Command--which owns most of the Air Force's drone units--said the limiting factor in UAV operations against China would be "how quickly they could shoot them down." Against state-of-the-art air defenses, UAVs would forced to utilize "stand-off" orbits, beyond the reach of enemy SAMs. And with variants of the SA-20 now touting ranges of 200 miles, that would greatly limit what the UAVs could cover.
Facing those realities, it's no wonder the Air Force is again looking at a penetrating ISR platform. As Douglas Barrie of Aerospace Daily & Defense Report reveals:
The U.S. Air Force is considering fielding a variant of its next-generation bomber that could collect intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) undetected behind enemy lines.
Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne says the service is on “a quest to have long-range reconnaissance.” He says that an unmanned version of the bomber, which is expected to be fielded in 2018, would be a strong candidate for this mission.
The bomber platform is expected to be subsonic, highly stealthy and carry between 28,000-40,000 pounds of payload. An ISR version could operate undetected in airspace defended by the most advanced double-digit surface-to-air-missile systems.
Service officials still expect to keep a pilot in the bomber cockpit for those variants certified to deliver nuclear weapons.
Beyond the survivability issue, there are several reasons that "penetrating ISR" is again a hot topic. First, there's the matter of flexibility. Thanks to improvements in satellite warning and adversary denial and deception programs, it's becoming more difficult to collect meaningful intelligence with overhead platforms.
Intelligence organizations (and the commanders they support) need sensors that can be tasked (or diverted) to cover fleeting targets, before the next satellite pass, or before the enemy can hide their equipment or activities. This capability is particularly important in monitoring ballistic missile and WMD programs; in some sections of the world--including the Middle East--missile training and test launches typically fall outside a satellite window, and some facilities are beyond the range of stand-off imagery platforms. A penetrating ISR platform would hold those facilities (and systems) at risk.
Secondly, an ISR penetrator can be used to send a political message, reminding potential foes of their vulnerability. Early in my career as a spook, I worked for a former SR-71 pilot, then serving as a fighter squadron commander. In his office, he kept a press photo of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, getting off his plane in Havana.
In the photograph, Brezhnev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro are shaking hands, but they are looking straight up. Their odd gaze was in response to the distinctive, double sonic boom of an SR-71, then passing overhead. My squadron commander, the Blackbird pilot, had been directed to pass over Havana at the moment of Brezhnev's arrival--and embarrass Fidel in the process. Just a little reminder that the Yanqui SR-71 could fly where it wanted, when it wanted, and there wasn't much the bad guys could do about it. It's easy to envision similar flights (by the new aircraft) over places like Tehran, Caracas and Pyongyang in the future.
Lastly--and most importantly--the new system fills the ISR gap that has existed for the past 20 years or so. With a survivable, penetrating reconnaissance drone, we will improve our ability to detect and target fleeting systems (think a nuclear-tipped MRBM in Iran's western desert), even with future improvements in enemy air defense systems.
Reconnaissance has long been a low-priority mission for the Air Force. No wonder the service was so anxious to retire the SR-71 and before that, its tactical recce mainstay, the RF-4C. But the times have changed. With other branches of the military now investing heavily in UAVs, the Air Force no longer owns the market. Apparently, someone on the Air Staff figured out that if the USAF doesn't offer a long-range, penetrating drone for ISR, another service probably will.
In the perpetual fight over roles, missions and defense dollars, that's a powerful incentive for the Air Force to get back into the penetrating ISR game.