The Air Force hasn’t lost a lot of aircraft recently to hostile fire, but hostile bureaucrats are definitely taking a toll. The latest airframe to lose altitude in Pentagon budget wars is the Multi-sensor Command and Control Aircraft, designated the E-10 (“E” for electronic). The plane was originally conceived as a successor to three other, more specialized electronic aircraft — the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) that provides wide-area surveillance of airspace, the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) that provides surveillance of moving ground vehicles, and the RC-135 electronic eavesdropping plane, code-named “Rivet Joint.”
At one time, the Air Force thought it could integrate all three missions on a single airframe, hence the “multi-sensor” reference in its program title. It gave up on that idea when cost and operational considerations undercut the appeal of doing air, ground and communications surveillance from one source. Until recently, though, it had still hoped that three different variants of a Boeing 767 — each equipped with a different suite of sensors — could collectively give it a constellation of next-generation electronic planes. Now even that concept is dying, thanks to the resistance of policymakers in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The policymakers have different ideas about how intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance should be done in the future — ideas that place more emphasis on satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles than manned aircraft. For example, instead of funding the ground-surveillance version of E-10 that would have replaced JSTARS, they want to track hostile tanks and trucks with a future Space-Based Radar, augmented by unmanned surveillance aircraft. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will decide this month whether to shift funding for that variant of E-10 to support a new joint program office for unmanned combat aerial vehicles.
You could interpret these moves as merely the latest evidence of how determined Rumsfeld is to transform the military. But in the case of the ground surveillance version of E-10, there’s a complication that looks more like transformation tripping over its own conflicting impulses. The ground surveillance plane was supposed to include a classified “radar technology insertion program” that — contrary to its cover story — tracks cruise missiles. Low-flying cruise missiles are a rapidly growing threat to forward deployed forces. Because they hug the ground, the Air Force decided to hide its secret program to track such weapons in a radar upgrade that seemed to be about tracking ground vehicles.
Tracking of cruise missiles is central to the Bush Administration’s transformation agenda. Although defense against ballistic missiles gets more attention, it doesn’t make much sense to counter a weapon few nations possess while failing to address the cheaper and more ubiquitous cruise missiles. Cruise missiles are just as capable of carrying nuclear, chemical or biological warheads — not to mention a host of other nasty kill mechanisms. If E-10 is not going to be built, the Pentagon needs to revert to its original plan of putting the new radar technology on an upgrade of its JSTARS plane. Otherwise, U.S. forces will be well-defended against a weapon few enemies have, and not defended against the most lethal weapon enemies do have.
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