The USAF’s draft budget for Fiscal Year 2021 is grinding its way through the Pentagon, and will emerge into the public domain next spring. Once again, the U-2’s future is under scrutiny, despite a previous decision to keep the Dragon Lady in service until at least the mid-2020s.
Perhaps that is inevitable, given that the future of many other platforms is also being reconsidered, reportedly including the B-1, early-block F-16s, the MQ-9 Reaper, and – yes – the Global Hawk. But the USAF’s re-evaluation of its two prominent high-altitude ISR platforms is complicated by the existence of a third, classified program. That is the Northrop Grumman UAV that has been designed for the Penetrating ISR (P-ISR) mission. I last mentioned it in 2015. It remains an unacknowledged program, and in the absence of any confirmed designation, it has become known as the RQ-180.
I am not convinced that this designation is correct. In the 2009 USAF UAS Flight Plan, the designations MQ-La/Lb/Lc were quoted for a large, stealthy vehicle with different configurations for a variety of different missions, including ISR. The following year, in another unclassified briefing, on “Anti Access/Area Denial Challenges”, a senior USAF officer used the P-ISR term. That sounds more helpful.
A recent article in Aviation Week confirmed what many informed observers in southern California and elsewhere had suspected. Namely, that after over ten years of development, the P-ISR is going operational. Having apparently occupied a large new hangar that was specially built at Groom Lake in 2007-08, the program transitioned to Edwards AFB around 2014. It is housed in a specially-secured area on South Base, which is isolated from the main Edwards complex. It flies only at night. See below for an overhead view of the hangar where it is based. (courtesy Google Earth).
The speculation in Aviation Week that the P-ISR is also based at Beale AFB is not correct. However, there is an important connection with the USAF’s home in northern California for the U-2 and the Global Hawk. Namely, that the 9th Reconnaissance Wing has been chosen to bring the P-ISR into operational service. There has been a complicated succession of developmental and operational testing units involved, for both the UAV and its bespoke ground stations. They include a detachment and a squadron that report to the 9th Operations Group at Beale: see their insignia below. (The Latin inscription on the Detachment 2’s insignia translates as “We Come As Thieves In The Night”).
Well-informed observers have told me that many billions of dollars have been spent on the P-ISR, and yet its contribution to the mission can never be more than that of a “silver bullet”. Certainly, the creation of a truly stealthy high-altitude platform is a huge technical challenge, especially if it is expected to loiter subsonically for hours inside denied airspace. That requires a degree of all-aspect and broadband stealth that may not even be part of the B-21 specification.
This is an impression of what the P-ISR may look like. It comes from a presentation by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in 2009 – about the time that Northrop Grumman won the P-ISR contract. The AFRL envisaged a highly-efficient engine and an airframe with flexible, active wings spanning more than 200 feet, and sensors providing 360-degree coverage from large, embedded structural arrays. It would offer an endurance of 40-50 hours. It was called the SensorCraft. The AFRL had been studying the SensorCraft concept since 2002 or earlier. In 2004, Northrop Grumman won a five-year contract to help AFRL mature conformal antenna technology.
Below is a photo of the Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Projects P-175, a high-altitude UAV that the Skunk Works revealed in 2006. At the time, ADP said that it was a subscale R & D demonstrator for USAF’s future Long Range Strike Program. Northrop Grumman subsequently won the LRS contract, resulting in the yet-to-fly B-21. But what was learnt from the Polecat may also have helped ADP bid for the P-ISR contract – which it also lost to NG, as well as the LRS. (The Polecat crashed at the end of 2006 and was apparently not replaced).
So why may the existence of the highly ambitious P-ISR project affect the future of the Dragon Lady? By giving operational control to the 9th Wing, a comparison of its capability and utility with that the U-2 and the Global Hawk can be made by the folks that really matter – the users.
Last April, the Wing established Common Mission Control Centers (CMCCs) in a new building at Beale and also at Edwards and Anderson AFB on Guam – a possible deployment base for the P-ISR. (Anderson is already a home for Global Hawks). The task of these CMCCs is to provide “tailorable products and services for use in contested environments”. They seem to be ground stations that integrate the command and control of classified UAVs such as the P-ISR and the RQ-170, with the processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) of their ‘take’. The PED is claimed to be much more sophisticated than that performed in the USAF’s legacy ground stations, including multi-domain fusion using artificial intelligence and machine learning. The CMCC’s insignia (above) includes generic shapes that depict a stealthy, tail-less airframe.
Here is a scenario that may be under consideration by the budget crunchers in Washington. The P-ISR may not gain political approval to overfly unfriendly countries on a frequent basis. Except maybe Iran and North Korea. So how to realize the enormous investment that has been made? The U-2 currently flies as close as is prudent to such countries. Why not replace it with a platform that can fly closer, but still within permitted airspace, when that airspace is nevertheless within the detection and interception range of the latest-generation air defense systems, such as the Russian S-400?
As for the Global Hawk, rumor has it that the USAF will dump the Block 30s, retaining only the Block 40s that carry the more capable MP-RTIP imaging radar. These could also be equipped with the MS177 long-electro-optical sensor, already on the Block 30s, that maker Collins Aerospace says is more capable than the SYERS sensor on the U-2. The remaining Global Hawks would be used over uncontested airspace, and, if overflight permission has not been granted, close to the borders of countries where air defense systems do not exist, or are not capable of intercepting a high-altitude target.
On previous occasions when the USAF has considered retiring the U-2, the combatant commanders in CENTCOM, EUCOM and PACOM have successfully lobbied for its retention. Unfortunately, CENTCOM may no longer be able to justify the U-2, since it has recently been withdrawn from the region. The three jets from Al Dhafra, UAE have been redeployed to RAF Fairford in the UK. I haven’t heard a good reason for the Dragon Lady’s departure from CENTCOM, which has been kept quiet. Maybe operational need was Trumped by political interference. The Global Hawks remain at Al Dhafra, despite the recent loss of one to Iranian surface-to-air missiles. They are flying over Afghanistan, a friendly country that has no air defense systems. Friendly for the time being, at least…
I dare say the U-2s at Fairford are doing good work for EUCOM and NATO. I hope to write more about this.
So we await publication of the FY2021 budget. Irene Helley, the new U-2 program director at the Skunk Works, told me recently that they don’t take the U-2’s prolongation for granted. “We fight to prove it every day,” she said. But she remained confident that the jet would survive the latest scrutiny. I hope she is right.
(Minor editing changes subsequently made).