The US Air Force expects to roll out a “vector” for its unmanned aircraft fleet “soon”, says the service’s top intelligence officer.

“We plan on doing a roll out of the RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] roadmap once it is approved by the chief [of staff Gen Mark Welsh],”says Lt Gen Robert Otto, the USAF’s intelligence chief, speaking at the Air Force Association conference in Washington DC.

While the USAF will not yet reveal the shape of its future unmanned aircraft fleet, it is clear that the need to gather intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data from inside highly-contested airspace is shaping the service’s plans. “Right now, the mix is not where it needs to be,” Otto says. “We are over-invested in permissive ISR and we have to transform the force to fight and win in a contested environment.”

The commander of the USAF’s Air Combat Command, Gen Mike Hostage, mirrors Otto’s sentiments. “That is not the force structure the nation need[s] or can afford in an anti-access/area denial environment,” Hostage says. “The Predator and Reapers are useless in a contested environment.”

Hostage would not say how the USAF intends to operate ISR assets inside contested airspace, but he says there are a number of options the service is looking at.

There is a place for both the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper in operations in permissive airspace, both officers agree. Missions such as counter-terrorism are not going away.

However, the balance between forces designed to operate inside contested airspace and those designed to operate inside permissive airspace needs to be reconfigured.

The USAF is trying to persuade the Office of the Secretary of Defense to drop the requirement for the service to provide 65 unmanned aircraft orbits because the wars in the Middle East are winding down.

Hostage emphasises that the USAF does not want to walk away from the mission, but merely adjust the force for shifting priorities. Nonetheless, Hostage says he is pushing for a revamp of the service’s entire ISR budget.

Source: Flight International