The US Air Force will have to rebalance its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) portfolio after operations wrap up over Afghanistan if it is to be able to collect data from contested airspace, the service's top civilian leader says.

"Our overall ISR enterprise needs, I think, to be rebalanced to accommodate the demanding operations requirements that we could face in a more contested environment," said USAF secretary Michael Donley, speaking to reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, DC, on 23 April.

Donley said 65 combat air patrols of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers are going to be the high point for medium-altitude unmanned aircraft orbits. "An ongoing discussion is sort of under way on what the right balance is between manned and unmanned, medium altitude and high altitude, penetrating, stand-off, what kinds of sensors," Donley said. "The aperture has been wide open over the last 10 years; it's time to make some more strategic choices."

 MQ-9 Reaper - USAF

US Air Force

Predators and Reapers (above) do have applicability in other regions, Donley said, but not in environments where the airspace is contested. As for the USAF's penetrating ISR capability, Donley said that the service has acknowledged the stealthy Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel unmanned aircraft, but that more needs to be done. "This is an area we need to work on going forward," he said.

On 18 April, Lt Gen Larry James, the service's ISR chief, said that the Lockheed F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters are going to be the USAF's primary means to collect data from inside denied airspace. However, James said the service is also continuing to track the US Navy's unmanned surveillance and strike aircraft programme, but is not in a hurry to jump on board that developmental effort.

Lt Gen Charles Davis, military deputy for the office of the assistant secretary of the air force for acquisitions, told the US Congress on 17 April that a classified platform could undertake some of the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned air vehicle's missions. Analysts suggest that the aircraft in question is a stealthy long-range ISR aircraft that is being developed at a classified site in the Nevada desert.

Source: Flight International