Issue Brief: Air Force Plans for Surveillance Planes are in Disarray
(Source: Lexington Institute; issued July 18, 2006)

(© Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.


You can learn a lot about the management skills of rival organizations by comparing the way they pursue similar goals. Consider airborne surveillance. Each of the military departments maintains a fleet of aircraft for conducting various forms of surveillance such as electronic eavesdropping and tracking of ground vehicles.

The Bush Administration has made improved performance of these missions a centerpiece of its plans to transform the military, in part because of the difficulty of tracking terrorists. Services that perform specific types of surveillance especially well have a chance at gaining budget share by taking over that mission for the whole joint force.

So it isn't surprising that during last year's Quadrennial Defense Review, all of the services highlighted their supposedly unique ability to accomplish intelligence-gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance ("ISR" in Pentagonese) from aircraft they own? The Army couldn't make a very persuasive case, because it canceled its future signals intelligence aircraft right in the middle of QDR deliberations. Planners had begun to wonder whether the aircraft picked for the mission could carry all the equipment it would need.

The Air Force and the Navy had better stories to tell. Both have long histories of using electronic aircraft to collect vital intelligence for the joint force and national agencies. In the case of the Air Force, the key planes are the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) that tracks aircraft, the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) that tracks ground vehicles, and the RC-135 Rivet Joint (RJ) that monitors radio-frequency transmissions.

The Air Force has also begun fielding a very long endurance unmanned aircraft called Global Hawk for imagery and eavesdropping missions. In the case of the Navy, key surveillance aircraft are the E-2C Hawkeye carrier-based radar plane, the P-3 Orion multi-mission patrol plane, and the EP-3 Aries electronic eavesdropping plane. The Navy also does monitoring of enemy radar and communications with its carrier-based jamming aircraft, the EA-6B Prowler.

When the QDR began, the Air Force seemed poised to become the dominant source of surveillance for the joint force. It was planning to replace all three of its electronic planes with a vastly more capable and versatile system to be carried on a widebody jet. Designated E-10, the new system would have an advanced radar capable of tracking small and slow-moving targets both on the ground and in the air -- targets like stealthy cruise missiles and terrorist SUV's that existing sensors had trouble finding. The Air Force proposed to build the E-10 in three variants, all of which would be integrated into a comprehensive surveillance network that also included Global Hawk and reconnaissance satellites such as the planned Space Radar.

Becoming lead service for joint surveillance is important to the Air Force at a time when demand for fighters and bombers is at a low ebb. But its grand plan is melting down: policymakers pared the E-10 effort to a single test aircraft in the QDR, and insiders say even that will disappear in the 2008 budget.

Meanwhile, Congress is cutting funds for the Global Hawk and shows little sign of embracing Space Radar. In contrast, the Navy's plan to upgrade or replace its own electronic planes is progressing smoothly -- the next-generation E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, the P-8 replacement of the P-3 patrol plane, and EF-18G successor to the Prowler all look like success stories.

The only problem the Navy faces is what airframe it should use to replace the EP-3 signals plane now that the Army plane it was counting on is gone (it will pick P-8). So the Navy's role in joint surveillance is likely to grow in the years ahead.

As for the Air Force, it needs to figure out fast how it will meet the requirements of the E-10 program if the program itself is dead.

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