Another budget request, another plan to retire the U-2. But don’t count on it.
In the small print of the USAF’s Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) presidential budget request, there is a statement that the Dragon Lady will be “divested” in Fiscal Year 2026. But there is a glaring omission. Unlike previous budget requests, there is no data on the spending that is foreseen in the four years following FY22 eg the Five Year Defense Plan (FYDP). This is the case for all the programs in the request, not only the U-2. The new administration says that it wants more time to consider its future defense spending plans in detail.
In the FY21 request last year, $470.5 million in spending on upgrades for the U-2 was forecast during the FYDP eg FY21-25. The money was for the new ASARS-2B radar, the Open Mission System (OMS), the Global High-altitude Open-system Sensor Technology (GHOST) for SIGINT, modernization of data links, and the networking innovations that I described here. Another $77 million was requested for RDT&E on the above.
In recent years, the Global Hawk has been the Dragon Lady’s companion as a high-altitude reconnaissance platform. Before that, there was a long history of rivalry between the aircraft, as told in my book DRAGON LADY TODAY. But last year, the USAF said that it wanted to retire the four Block 20 and 20 Block 30 Global Hawks, retaining only the 10 Block 40s.
The US Congress didn’t think much of that idea. It prohibited the USAF from retiring the Global Hawks until the service provided a convincing report that any replacement would cost less to operate and provide equal or greater capability. Congress also noted that the FY18 Defense Authorization Act clearly defined the conditions that must be met, before either the U-2 or the Global Hawk could be retired.
In the FY22 request, the USAF repeated its plan to retire the Block 20 and 30 Global Hawks immediately. It also revealed that it wanted to dump the Block 40s – which are the last-built aircraft with the most advanced radar – in FY25. Like the U-2, the FY22 request specifies spending on a range of upgrades to the UAV in the meantime. It gives a total of $238 million over the next four fiscal years. Logically, this would nearly all be spent on the Block 40s, despite their planned divestiture.
If both the Global Hawk and the U-2 are to go out of service by FY25 and FY26 respectively, that will be a huge waste of money and effort, by Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and all the other contractors.
So where’s the logic? Especially when the combatant commanders continually say that they can’t get enough ISR. What could replace these two high-altitude jets?
There’s no doubt that increased networking will provide a significant amount of ISR data in the future. USAF officials talk of “a multi-domain, multi-intelligence, collaborative sensing grid.” The space domain will be particularly important, since satellite radar and SIGINT sensors are improving, and revisit rates are increasing, all the time. Indeed, commercial satellite service providers already seem to match much of the capability that could previously only be found on the exotic and very expensive classified satellites provided by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
But there’s something else, of course. The USAF has not yet provided that report about a Global Hawk replacement to Congress. But it has briefed key members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on the Penetrating ISR (P-ISR), the unacknowledged and top secret program for a stealthy high altitude UAV made by Northrop Grumman. Most journalists believe it is designated RQ-180, but I am not convinced. I provided my analysis of the P-ISR on these pages 18 months ago.
Last month, USAF Chief of Staff Gen Charles Brown made the most explicit public references yet to the P-ISR. In testimony to the two Congressional committees, he said: “I expect a highly contested environment in the future…We need an ISR force that is persistent, connected and survivable.” Brown told the members that the USAF was planning a smooth transition…from “less persistent and less survivable (platforms) …to the classified system that we are bringing on”.
The P-ISR has certainly been a long time coming. It may have been in development for a dozen or more years. As many as 16 airframes may have been built. Yet it may still only have reached the Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) stage.
This may not be entirely the fault of the program managers, Northrop Grumman and other contractors. Since the P-ISR was conceived, there have been huge advances in networking, with more to come. The concept of operations for the P-ISR has probably changed from that of being only a stealthy collecting platform, to being a key networking node for military operations in “contested airspace”. Incidentally, the U-2 is playing an important role as a testbed for some of these advances, which may well be intended for the P-ISR.
Many observers believe that Northrop Grumman’s work on the P-ISR helped it win the contract for a long-range strike (LRS) stealth bomber in 2015. The LRS is now known as the B-21 Raider, and is supposed to make its first flight in less than a year’s time. The aerodynamic shape of the new stealth bomber is probably similar to the P-ISR, although the scale may be different. But in addition to the outer mold line, there are probably other synergies between the two platforms to be explored and exploited.
The P-ISR and the B-21 have something else in common. They are enormously expensive. While absolutely nothing has been made public about the former, some of the costs to develop and produce the B-21 have recently been revealed. The USAF is spending over $2.8 billion a year to develop it. The average unit cost is predicted to be $639 million at 2019 prices, assuming a minimum buy of 100 aircraft!
The U-2 must surely be “less survivable” than the P-ISR. But it can’t be wise to solely rely in future on a UAV that is supposed to survive for long periods of time over “denied territory”. I’m willing to take bets, that the U-2 will be “survivable”. That is, it will still be flying into the next decade.