March 18, 2013
Credit: U.S. Defense Dept.
Amy Butler Orlando, Fla. and Washington
The U.S. Air Force is finding that even seemingly small decisions are garnering heightened scrutiny—and resistance—from Congress.
And, this could limit its ability to efficiently rescope and resize its intelligence collection aircraft fleet after the Afghanistan war winds down.
This conundrum is evident in the debate over the fate of the Air Force's ongoing lease with Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), which owns and has been operating four so-called Blue Devil 1 intelligence collection aircraft previously in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.
The lease for these aircraft, which are highly praised by soldiers in the war, runs out in September. The question is whether the service will continue to provide the Blue Devil 1 capability and if so, how. Operations in Afghanistan are expected to continue only through 2014. So, at issue is about 18 months of potential service. The Blue Devil 1 lease costs about $800,000 annually, with the pilots, intelligence analysts and maintenance experts costing approximately $80 million annually, according to an Air Force official.
Some senior Air Force officials are eager to shed their commitment to the program in favor of higher priorities as they plan for a reduced force structure in the future and to meet near-term fiscal constraints. But, Blue Devil has become popular with commanders abroad and Congress is unwilling to pull something out of the war if soldiers say they like it.
Three options are on the table: terminating the program altogether after the lease runs out by not renewing it; leasing additional service (an option Congress finds unpalatable) or buying the small fleet outright, which would cost about $12 million, according to a defense official. Some in the Air Force are also suggesting that the Reaper—equipped with the new Gorgon Stare wide area surveillance system that will be deployed this spring—is an alternative to continuing with Blue Devil 1.
“Is the capability of Blue Devil so critical and [is there] no other way to do it [such] that I have to keep Blue Devil? I believe [the answer] is no,” says Gen. Michael Hostage, Air Combat Command chief. “I will keep that capability until the warfighter is done in 2014. I wanted to just rent them, but I got beaten up because Congress doesn't like us leasing things.” Hostage says that the fate of Blue Devil 1 is one of the many issues being explored as the Air Force studies what should be the future intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) force structure.