8 December 2012
The Air Force’s multi-billion-dollar drone fleets may have helped against the insurgents of Iraq and Afghanistan. But in a fight against a real military like China’s, the relatively defenseless unmanned aerial vehicles would get shot down in a second. So once again, the air will belong to traditional, manned bombers and fighters able to survive the sophisticated air defenses.
At least that’s the Air Force’s official position. Secretly, however, the flying branch could be working on at least two new high-tech UAVs optimized for the most intensive future air wars. Ace aviation reporter Bill Sweetman has gathered evidence of new stealth drones under development by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — the latter potentially armed, and both drawing on classified funds. If these robots are real, the Air Force’s drone era is not only not ending — it’s barely begun.
To be clear, no one thinks unmanned aircraft are becoming any less vital to Washington’s shadowy counter-terrorism campaigns in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and, possibly soon, Mali. Missile-armed Predators, the larger Reapers carrying bombs and missiles, and stealthy, unarmed Sentinel spy drones, operated jointly by the CIA and the military, are still America’s weapon of choice for hunting terrorist leaders. Three years ago then-CIA director Leon Panetta, now the defense secretary, called UAVs the “only game in town” for disrupting the core of al-Qaida.
But when it comes to strictly military campaigns — assuming those even exist anymore — flying robots appear to be falling out of favor with the nation’s air combat branch. Earlier this year the Air Force announced controversial plans to scale back its known current and future drone fleets.
Gone would be the Block 30 model of the brand-new, high-flying Global Hawk recon UAV, axed in favor of upgrades to the decades-old U-2 spy plane. Production of the workhorse Reapers was slashed from 48 per year to just 24. Looking ahead, the Air Force cancelled a planned, unclassified effort to develop a jet-powered attack drone, the MQ-X. Indeed, the flying branch abandoned its entire 30-year “roadmap” for future UAV development, which had anticipated a host of new robot designs to ultimately replace most manned aircraft.
Publicly, the Air Force is even considering reneging on its promise to make the next-generation heavy bomber now in development “optionally manned,” meaning it could be converted into a large, long-range drone with the flip of a switch. The potential high cost of the dual design is “probably going to make it difficult to afford an unmanned solution,” Air Force Global Strike Command boss Gen. James Kowalski said.
Remarkably, it was just four years ago that then-Defense Secretary Bob Gates leaned on the flying branch to finally get serious about pilotless planes, which can fly far longer than their manned counterparts and are ideal for surveillance and attacks missions against lightly armed militants like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even after (then) seven years of war, motivating the Air Force to purchase more drones — and consequently fewer traditional planes — was “like pulling teeth,” Gates said. To break the logjam Gates had to fire the Air Force’s two top officials and abruptly cancel further production of the air-combat service’s prized F-22 fighter.
Now the Iraq war is over and the war in Afghanistan is winding down. All the military branches are revamping their arsenals for an era in which they anticipate fewer long-term counter-insurgency campaigns and more short, high-intensity wars such as last year’s Libya campaign plus the ongoing responsibility of deterring a rising China. “The fleet I’ve built up — and I’m still being prodded to build up, too — is not relevant in that new theater,” Gen. Mike Hostage, head of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command, said last week.
In high-stress combat the human brain is still the best computer, and human eyes the best sensors, Hostage said. Drones “don’t have the awareness that a manned plane would have.”
The other branches do not share that view. The Army is proceeding with plans to purchase more than 100 copies of its own armed Predator variant. The Navy is pouring billions into a stealthy, jet-powered attack drone that can launch from aircraft carriers. Only the Air Force has looked into the future and stated that current flying robots don’t have much of a place.
Instead, the Air Force says it wants more manned planes. Despite flattening budgets the flying branch is sticking with its longtime requirement for 1,763 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters plus up to 100 new bombers. And Hostage says his researchers are trying to define a so-called “sixth-generation” fighter to succeed the F-35 around 2030. That plane will have an on-board pilot, Hostage said.
When it comes to drones, “retrenchment returns the Air Force to business as usual,” Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta and M.L. Cummings wrote in Armed Forces Journal. But that retrenchment could be a cover. It’s very possible that all the Air Force’s recent backtracking on unmanned warplanes applies only to unclassified efforts. It’s feasible, even likely, that Air Force UAV initiatives are thriving within the military’s $35-billion-a-year classified budget. For sure, the stealthy Sentinel drone that first appeared in Afghanistan five years ago and subsequently spied on Iran and Pakistan is one product of the classified budget.
In fact, it makes sense for UAV development for the post-Iraq and -Afghanistan era to favor “black” programs. As America’s wars become more high-tech and its foes more heavily armed, the Air Force will need truly cutting-edge drones — the robot equivalents of the Cold War F-117 and B-2 stealth warplanes, both of which were designed and initially produced in total secrecy in order to protect their pricey new technologies.
In a recent article for Aviation Week, reporter Sweetman laid out the evidence for no fewer than two new, jet-powered, radar-evading Air Force UAVs still cloaked in black funding. In 2008 Northrop Grumman, maker of the B-2 stealth bomber, scored a $2-billion Pentagon contract that the company took pains to keep off the books. At the same time, Northrop hired as a consultant John Cashen, the man most responsible for devising the B-2′s radar-defeating shape.
The funding and Cashen’s expertise were applied to a secret effort to build a larger successor to the Lockheed Martin-made Sentinel, according to Sweetman. The new drone “is, by now, probably being test-flown at Groom Lake,” a.k.a. Area 51, Sweetman wrote.
In parallel, Lockheed could be building a stealthy spy drone meant to fly ahead of the Air Force’s new bomber, helping to jam enemy radars and spot targets for the larger, manned plane. Sweetman called the secret spy drone, which has been alluded to by Pentagon officials, “a real and funded program.” Perhaps coincidentally, in December last year a commercial satellite spotted what appeared to be a previously unknown UAV type at Lockheed’s facility in Palmdale, California.
Despite the public statements eschewing old-style drones, it’s possible the Air Force is working hard to field brand-new flying robots better suited to an era of conventional warfare. But it could be years before we know for sure, as any evidence is deeply classified and could remain so. “When the new systems will be disclosed is anyone’s guess,” Sweetman lamented.
Today’s drones might have hit their peak, by the Air Force’s reckoning. But
tomorrow’s drones could rise to take their place.