Friday, April 20, 2012

The Trouble with Airborne ISR

A USAF RC-135U Combat Sent strategic SIGINT aircraft.  The RC-135 fleet represents the lone bright spot as budgets for other ISR and battle management aircraft are cut (USAF photo)

It's no secret that America's military aircraft fleet is aging rapidly--and in many cases, no replacement platforms are in sight.  Lieutenant General David Deptula, who retired last year as the Air Force's Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, often illustrated this point with a simple story.  Deptula's son (also an Air Force fighter jock) often flew the same F-15 his father piloted while assigned to Kadena AB, Japan.  The "gap" between father and son in the cockpit was more than 20 years, illustrating the advancing age of our tactical aircraft.

And, the problem is even worse among certain ISR and battle management platforms.  As David Fulgham of Aviation Week observes, the Air Force's fleet of E-3 AWACS and E-8 Joint Stars are getting long in the tooth, and there's no money to fix them or replace them.  As Mr. Fulghum writes, worries about ISR aircraft are a fairly recent development; as recently as a year ago, there seemed to be enough money for AWACS and Joint Starts to solider on, well into the future:

"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."

That quote neatly describes how quickly the budget axe has fallen on scores of Pentagon programs--even those considered essential for tactical and strategic operations.  It also indicates that cuts have been made with little regard for the near and long-term consequences.  Let another administration (and their service chiefs) worry about that one.

The only ray of sunshine in this gloomy picture is the nation's RC-135 fleet.  According to Aviation Week, our Rivet Joint and Combat Sent aircraft are "doing just fine," an apparent reference to the supplementary funding sources that help keep them in the air.  As our primary airborne SIGINT platforms, the RC-135 fleet (based at Offut AFB, Nebraska) is funded in part by the National Security Agency.  A running joke in the Air Force asks, "What's the only wing flying on 30 September (end of the fiscal year)?  The 55th at Offut.  With funding streams from Fort Meade, there's always money available to keep RJ and Sent in the air.

But their effectiveness in tactical operations will be diminished if AWACS and J-Stars aren't available.  While Rivet Joint provides vital intelligence on its own, it becomes even more valuable when its SIGINT "haul" is fused with air tracks from AWACS, or meshed with ground tracking provided by J-Stars.  Without those inputs, the overall battle picture will be incomplete, creating problems for both intelligence analysts and commanders.

The supposed solution for this problem is mounting sensors on smaller, unmanned aircraft that will eventually replace AWACS and J-Stars.  But as one expert told David Fulghum, this approach is far from optimum.  UAVs can't carry the sensors needed for wide area surveillance, and in today's budgetary environment, will there be enough money to build the "swarm" of sensor platforms needed to replace the E-3s and E-8s?  Don't bet on it.            


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