If you need evidence that the Joint Chiefs of Staff weren’t exaggerating when they told Congress that budget cuts threaten military modernization, just look at what’s happening inside the Air Force. The service is proposing to kill a next-generation weather satellite, which would leave U.S. warfighters dependent on aged technology for information about clouds, winds, precipitation and ground conditions while China moves out on deploying a much more modern constellation. It also wants to terminate the C-27 replacement of Army short-hop cargo planes that soldiers say is better suited than other planes for supplying isolated bases.
And then there are unmanned aircraft, the drones that some proponents think may be the future of air power. They sure don’t look like the future inside Air Force budget deliberations. Not only are some budgeteers arguing the service has over-invested in Predator surveillance drones — to a point where it will have trouble piloting them and exploiting their reconnaissance — but others are arguing in favor of simply mothballing the military’s most capable unmanned aircraft. The Air Force has invested $7 billion in the latter program, called Global Hawk, but now planners say the money needed to finish production and operate the system may not be available.
That’s an odd point of view to be espousing when most of the money required to field the system has already been spent and the joint military focus is shifting to the Pacific theater — an area where vast distances make the long-endurance Global Hawk especially useful. Global Hawk isn’t just the newest unmanned aircraft in the joint inventory, it’s also the most capable and versatile. Walking away from a $7 billion investment in it sounds penny-wise and pound-foolish. Apparently the senior political appointees who run the Pentagon and look at such decisions from a joint perspective are also having trouble following the Air Force’s reasoning.
The Air Force’s reasoning is mostly budget-driven. It already has a highly capable airborne reconnaissance system called the U-2 that can out-perform Global Hawk in a handful of areas due to better on-board sensors and a higher cruising altitude. However, Global Hawk has much greater reach and endurance owing in part to the fact that it is unmanned, and it has other advantages too. Deciding which system is the best solution in the current fiscal environment is not so easy, because there are disagreements about how much each aircraft will cost to operate, and the performance of either one could be markedly improved with additional investment. The Air Force’s current preference seems to be determined mainly by how much each program will cost in the near term.
That might seem myopic, but the Air Force and its sister services have been forced into such thinking by the federal government’s budget crisis. Defense secretary Leon Panetta disclosed in letters to Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain on November 14 that there are much bigger programs than Global Hawk potentially on the chopping block if sequestration occurs pursuant to the Budget Control Act. The ideal outcome from the viewpoint of warfighters would be to have both U-2 and Global Hawk in the future fleet, since that would maximize the versatility of the surveillance and reconnaissance force. But budget considerations apparently preclude that. So if you’re one of those enthusiasts who think unmanned aircraft own the future, stay tuned because there’s a possibility that the revolution is about to be postponed.
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