“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.
Congress allowed for the original lease because Blue Devil 1 was considered critical for an urgent operational need; it was called for at the height of the Iraq war as soldiers in the field were struggling to find and disarm improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
However, Congress generally frowns on leases because they can cost more than buying a fleet outright and organically operating it.
Through the arrangement, SAIC owns and operates the fleet of four modified Beechcraft King Air 90s and delivers the intelligence to users in Iraq. At the time the lease was crafted, commanders were demanding far more intelligence collection than the Pentagon could organically provide. Specifically, Blue Devil 1 brought a much-needed wide-area-motion imagery (WAMI) capability to commanders in the region.
Blue Devil 1 was built on work spearheaded by the U.S. Marine Corps' Angel Fire and the Army's Constant Hawk systems. All of these were designed to provide “forensic intelligence,” allowing operators to see an event—such as an IED exploding—and track it back through time using stored data to find its origin. According to military officials, these systems helped find terrorists planting IEDs and their assembly sites.
Blue Devil 1 improved the capability with the addition of a day/night camera that could operate using infrared optics.
In the case of Blue Devil, however, Air Force officials never intended to keep the system in the fleet beyond the war in Afghanistan. This is unlike the debate a decade ago over whether to lease aerial refuelers, which were projected to remain in service for decades. By contrast, the service considers this a short-term need for which it is willing to pay SAIC a modest $6 million to remove the specialized intelligence equipment after the mission ends; leases typically call for the customer to “demod” special mission equipment after the service term expires.
SAIC officials declined an interview request on the subject. They released a statement saying that “SAIC and its teammates have worked with the USAF since 2012 to develop, deploy and demonstrate advanced ISR concepts as part of the Blue Devil program. We are working with the USAF to define plans for Blue Devil's continued support of operations in theater through the end of the mission.” SAIC CEO Air Force Gen. (ret.) John Jumper says the system is “one that is in great demand over there [and] is very unique.”
The catch for the Air Force is less about what to do right now and more about what long-term cost there may be as a result of the decision. Because Blue Devil 1 is contractor-owned and operated, the service has no logistics support for the system, no parts supply chain and no trained support staff. All of these require money to stand up and sustain at a time when the service is being told to trim its costs.