It is being reported that the Air Force is preparing to scrap its fleet of long range, long endurance Block 30 RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs, while continuing to rely on Cold War-era U2 aircraft for high-altitude surveillance missions for at least another decade. While the pre-budget leak is somewhat surprising, the Global Hawk program had run into trouble before this, blowing through its budget, suffering reductions in the number the Pentagon wanted to buy and prompting the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester to report that the aircraft “provided less than half the required 55 percent Effective-Time-On-Station coverage over a 30-day period,” when operating at operational tempos, concluding that it is “not operationally suitable.”
That said, the Global Hawk was the last asset to leave Iraqi airspace when U.S. troops pulled out in December, while racking up 1,146 missions and 21,325.3 flight hours during the war.
Aside from the long-endurance mission, one of the big questions for American remotely piloted aviation is how best to plan for a future that will undoubtedly see a proliferation of increasingly sophisticated jamming and hacking capabilities make its way into the hands of state and even non-state adversaries.
“We need to have a balanced capability” to operate in both kinds of environments, (ret) USAF Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the service’s first Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance says. One of the greatest weaknesses of the unmanned fleet, Deptula adds, is that every platform has to be controlled by an operator on the ground. “Those linkages are vulnerable to jamming. To counter that you need to move toward a greater degree of autonomy, but along with moving to autonomy you’ll encounter a variety of policy issues that when you have a man in the loop you don’t have to worry about that much.”
Deptula believes that the issue isn’t the technology so much as it is the Cold War-era organizations that control that technology. “What we need to be looking at are innovative ways to accomplish the same kinds of outcomes or desired effects with fewer resources: that being dollars expended, personnel required, and numbers of systems,” he says. “We also have to think about different ways of doing business. Right now if you want more capability you add more sensors which adds more data collection which now requires greater bandwidth to offboard the data.” The key to reducing the amount of data sent to the ground—making it vulnerable to hacking—is in processing that information on board and sending back only that is of interest so it doesn’t rely on a “man in the loop” to carry out the simplest tasks. Particularly at a time when force structure will be strained, adding more autonomy to unmanned aircraft might be the only way to achieve the level of surveillance that the armed forces desire.