Though a short, continued lease makes sense to the service brass, they may not propose it in the upcoming fiscal 2014 budget because of appearances. They don't want to be seen as abandoning support for forward-deployed soldiers, even as the war winds down. It was only a few short years ago that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly upbraided the service for being too slow in getting Predator unmanned aircraft to the fight in relevant numbers.
And, service officials are afraid to anger Congress by proposing a short-term lease to get them through upcoming operations.
Though the math to lease or buy is indeed a financial wash, as Hostage said, the issue is what comes after. If the service is forced to properly support a tiny fleet of four aircraft, it will have to fund specialized parts, training and support that Hostage suggests will not be germane to the kind of fight most likely to take place in the future involving sophisticated air defenses.
“For a decade now we have built the most incredible permissive [ISR] capacity and capability anybody has ever seen,” Hostage said. “I'm being forced to build a capacity I know I can't sustain [and] I know I don't need.”
The Air Force is now trying to refocus its efforts on operating in contested or even more dicey denied airspace. This requires the use of significant standoff capabilities or penetrating intelligence collection, as is being done with the recently declassified RQ-170 UAS.
Blue Devil 1 can collect using the day/night WAMI capability, a communications intelligence sensor, a signals intelligence sensor and full-motion video. These capabilities are singly or in combination offered by other Air Force systems, such as the Predator and Reaper unmanned air systems or MC-12W Project Liberty aircraft.
The magic of the Blue Devil 1 is in the processing, exploitation and dissemination of the intelligence collected by the aircraft, the defense official says. Blue Devil is the first system that truly allows an operator to use one sensor in real time to tip off another for target validation, he says. Though some Air Force systems offer a similar capability today, they require more human intervention in the target validation process. With Blue Devil 1, it is more seamless, he says.
Steven Walker, deputy assistant secretary of science, technology and engineering for the Air Force, credited Blue Devil 1 as “instrumental in identifying a number of high-value individuals and improvised explosive device emplacements” since December 2012.
One defense official offers another option on the Blue Devil 1 issue, however. Perhaps the functionality of Blue Devil 1 can be provided by another platform, he says. He declined to be identified owing to the sensitivity of the subject and secrecy of budget discussions.
This official notes that many of the capabilities are now employed on the Predator/Reaper fleet. And, with some processing and exploitation tools and training, the growing fleet of these UAS might be able to address the need. And, he notes, these fleets have on-station durations of a day or more, whereas the manned King Air 90s are limited to 4-5 hr. on station with down time for refueling and crew changes.