Air Force Drone Plan Leaves Troops Without Vital Recon

Faced with congressionally-mandated spending caps that compel foolish tradeoffs, the Air Force has proposed retiring its most valuable airborne reconnaissance plane and transferring high-resolution sensors to a drone that cannot match the plane’s performance.  Even if implemented in a timely fashion, the plan would result in U.S. warfighters being deprived of vital information about enemy movements, and there is a high likelihood that the same spending caps forcing the change would also preclude its timely execution.

The plane in question is the U-2S Dragon Lady, which carries 5,000 pounds of imaging and eavesdropping sensors to altitudes of 70,000 feet, enabling them to peer deep into countries such as North Korea and Russia.  The collected information is instantaneously transmitted to forward ground stations for analysis and dissemination, providing the kind of tactical early warning that is crucial to avoiding mass casualties.  The Air Force plan until earlier this year had been to keep the U-2 flying indefinitely, since the 33 planes in the fleet still have four decades of structural life remaining and all on-board systems from the engines to the sensors to the cockpit displays have recently been upgraded (at considerable cost).

However, in March the Air Force reversed its plan to keep the U-2 and retire a long-endurance drone called the RQ-4 Global Hawk, saying it had determined the drone cost less per hour to operate — mainly because it can stay aloft longer than the manned U-2.  So the new plan is to replace inferior sensors on the Global Hawk with the more capable ones carried on the U-2, and then quickly retire the U-2s to save money and stay within legislated spending caps.  Once the imagery and eavesdropping capabilities of Global Hawk reach parity with the U-2, it’s curtains for the venerable spy plane.

(Disclosure: Lockheed Martin LMT +1.33%, the prime contractor on U-2, andNorthrop Grumman NOC +0.87%, the prime contractor on Global Hawk, have contributed to my think tank.  So have the makers of key subsystems used on both airframes.)

On close inspection, though, this plan turns out to be incoherent — a series of non-sequiturs that could result in thousands of U.S. service members getting killed for lack of adequate intelligence.  First of all, it is impossible for the Global Hawk to achieve parity with the plane because U-2 has 67% more payload capacity, 80% more generating capacity to power sensors, and 156% greater volume in which to carry the sensors.  Second, even if parity in some recon missions were feasible, unlike U-2 the Global Hawk can’t fly through bad weather because it lacks de-icing equipment and can’t fly above the weather because of its lower operating ceiling (this explains why 55% of the drone’s Pacific missions were canceled last year, compared with 4% of the U-2′s).  Global Hawk also is dependent on satellite uplinks to its remote pilots that could be jammed by enemies, while U-2 has its pilot right on board.

Unlike the unmanned Global Hawk drone, the U-2 can fly through heavy clouds or above them, greatly increasing its mission availability. (Retrieved from

Did I mention it takes weeks to plan a Global Hawk mission?  That’s another big difference between drones and manned aircraft, so you can forget about reacting quickly to crises, the way the U-2 fleet did after 9-11.  As if all that were not enough, the way the Air Force has laid out its plan for transferring sensors from U-2 to Global Hawk, it appears the U-2s will start disappearing years before the drone is ready to start delivering the high-resolution reconnaissance combatant commanders need.  The commander of U.S. troops in Korea recently stated that U-2 provides unique intelligence to his force that Global Hawk cannot currently match, and yet it looks like the U-2 will start retiring three years before Global Hawk can host the sensors in question.

And that’s an optimistic assessment.  The Secretary of the Air Force stated in mid-March that if her service did not get relief from the same spending caps driving the new recon plan, then work on sensor upgrades to the Global Hawk would not occur.  In other words, if the Air Force did not reverse course again — keeping U-2 and killing Global Hawk — then the joint force might lose the high-quality intelligence it currently gets from the plane without getting anything better from the currently inadequate drone.  So calling the Air Force’s new approach to airborne reconnaissance incoherent is no exaggeration: it feeds into a longstanding concern that the service does not think clearly about the needs of ground forces it is supporting.

As Congress considers what the Air Force is proposing, two changes could greatly reduce the danger that U.S. warfighters might lose essential recon.  First, it should enforce the requirement already stated in law that U-2 not be retired until Global Hawk achieves some reasonable approximation of sensor parity with U-2.  For instance, the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2007 stated the planes could not be retired unless the Secretary of Defense certified that “U-2 aircraft no longer contribute to mitigating any gaps in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities identified in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review.”  You don’t need to know the details of that review to see that it will be some time before the unique intelligence U-2 generates can be matched by Global Hawk and some combination of other assets; until that day comes, the Pentagon should not retire U-2.

Second, the Air Force should rethink transferring sensors between the two airframes.  A critical electro-optical imaging sensor carried on U-2 today called SYERS-2 would take several years to integrate into Global Hawk because a key piece of equipment called a sensor interface module does not exist.  It would have to be designed, engineered, fabricated and tested before installation, which would require at least 24 months.  A more advanced version of the same sensor called SYERS-3 already has the necessary interface equipment available, and is better suited to dealing with the kind of “anti-access, area-denial” challenges likely to be faced in the Pacific.  So instead of shifting the current electro-optic sensor from U-2 to Global Hawk, Congress can reduce risk and improve performance by funding installation of the next-generation sensor on the drone starting in fiscal 2016.

The latter change would make it easier to continue using U-2 in support of overseas forces even as the sensors on Global Hawk are upgraded.  There are only a handful of the SYERS-2 sensors in existence, so any transfer of systems between the competing airframes increases the danger of vital intelligence not being available to troops.  And that brings me to a final point: the U-2 and Global Hawk should not be competing at all, because they are complementary.  Global Hawk will never match the payload capacity of U-2, but U-2 will never match the airborne endurance of Global Hawk.  Rather than being forced to choose between two world-class systems, the Air Force should be given the funding to sustain both in the fleet.  If it isn’t, U.S. troops in far-away places will be at greater risk.


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