USAF launches review to rebalance airborne ISR fleet

Washington DC
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The US Air Force has launched a sweeping review aimed at rationalising an expanding fleet of both manned and unmanned aircraft dedicated to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission.

Demand for airborne ISR capability is still rising, but the USAF is seeking to shift resources within programmes to make existing aircraft more capable, rather than buying more aircraft.

"As resources diminish, we need to rationalise this work and develop a balanced portfolio for the future," secretary of the air force Michael Donley told the House Armed Services Committee on 17 February.

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk may have served as an early test case. Dissatisfied with Northrop's ability to fix problems with the Block 30 sensor suite, the USAF slashed the number of Block 40s in the acquisition plan by half. The savings will be used to make the Block 30s more capable.

"At some point we say you have to live within the budget we have for this programme and you make the appropriate programme adjustments," Donley says.

A similar strategy may be sought to fund upgrades and capability improvements for the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper fleet.

The review is looking at ways to rationalise the force structure that supports a combat air patrol, Donley says. Previously, USAF officials have said that 168 people are required to operate a single patrol, which includes four aircraft and two ground stations.

The USAF also has had unfunded requirements to deploy a new ground station that allows a single operator to control up to four aircraft simultaneously. If that upgrade is funded, for example, the USAF could reduce the number of MQ-9 pilots by 56%, according to service officials.

The new ISR review also is focused on shifting airborne ISR assets into other geographic locations as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.

"The level of effort is principally in the [central command]," says Gen William Fraser, chief of Air Combat Command. The review would consider "shifting some of that capability to further support that capability whether it's in the Pacific or [US Southern Command] or wherever it may be."