In what could be the largest top-secret aircraft program since the B-2 bomber, the U.S. Air Force is racing to develop a stealthy, supersonic, long-range unmanned reconnaissance plane that would give commanders better intelligence on the ever-shifting targets in the war on terrorism and elsewhere.
And allow them to strike those targets.
The Air Force wants to develop an unmanned airplane that combines attributes designers historically have said were difficult, if not impossible, to blend: high speed, high stealth, high altitude and, most important, high persistence — the ability to remain over a given spot for a day or more. The new aircraft would fill a looming gap caused by delays in developing an ambitious new generation of spy satellites.
The ultimate aim, senior officials said, is to combine characteristics of stealth, speed, altitude and endurance not seen since the legendary SR-71 Blackbird spyplane built by Lockheed Martin was retired from active duty in the late 1990s because of costs.
The SR-71, the product of one of the most highly classified programs in history, was a Mach 3 aircraft introduced in the early 1960s to give U.S. policy-makers the ability to rapidly gather intelligence on global hot spots.
Like the SR-71, the heart of this new program is shrouded in intense secrecy. But unlike the SR-71, this new “black” bird would be capable of deploying an array of weapons from high-precision munitions to devices that can emit pulses of electromagnetic energy to wreak havoc on everything from power grids to electronic equipment.
But sources familiar with the program say difficult technical barriers remain. Meanwhile, the Air Force is developing multiple families of aircraft and technologies as it pursues its goal, which officials concede could take a decade.
Some of the developmental projects, like the Joint Unmanned Combat Aerial System and the Global Hawk, are public. But others remain top secret. What details are available have been pieced together from government, industry and Wall Street sources.
The total cost of the program remains unclear, but analysts say it is many billions of dollars. In addition to direct funding, analysts said money for the program could be hidden across a range of existing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs, a claim that Air Force officials reject.
Equally unclear is how large this aircraft would be, how many would be built, or how much each one would cost.
Almost as important as the airplane would be its ability to feed surveillance information directly to troops in the field. Senior officers have said such a system would be particularly useful to hunt terrorists in caves or alert U.S. patrols operating in urban settings.
Current UAVs have demonstrated their ability to loiter over an area of interest for more than a day. The high-endurance Global Hawk can remain airborne for some 35 hours, but it is slow and visible on radar.
“The availability of survivable unmanned vehicles that can deliver weapons or collect intelligence at great distance in relatively quick periods of time will literally revolutionize the way missions are planned and wars are executed,” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute.
“If the systems perform as envisioned, they will change everything from intelligence communities’ investment plans, to the plans for overseas basing. What we are talking about is getting beyond traditional performance trade-offs, like speed vs. stealth, or agility vs. endurance. This will undoubtedly change the Air Force’s culture, and one of the ways is that pilots will begin to see the emotional appeal of doing warfare in new ways.”
Filling Satellite Gap
The secret UAV effort was accelerated two years ago after it became clear the next-generation imaging satellite system, the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), was over budget and behind schedule, sources said, taxing the existing optical reconnaissance satellites. Coverage is becoming increasingly spotty, senior military officials and analysts said.
Boeing executives declined comment on FIA’s schedule and cost performance citing its classified nature. But a spokesman said development is moving ahead, adding that Pete Teets, deputy Air Force secretary, said during a July 20 address that the company is “making excellent progress.”
The classified portions of the UAV program involve such industry heavyweights as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and other leading defense and aerospace contractors, as well as select overseas companies. Pratt & Whitney, for example, has developed an engine for high-speed and high-altitude aircraft, similar to the J58 that powered the SR-71, able to operate as a ramjet at high altitude, but as a conventional jet at lower altitudes.
None of the companies would discuss their work on classified UAV programs.
When asked about the black, or secret, UAV program, Air Force Secretary James Roche and Gen. John Jumper, the service’s chief of staff, also declined comment.
But when asked whether the development of increasingly sophisticated surveillance UAVs would diminish the service’s reliance on space-borne systems, Roche said space-based capabilities remain critical — the question is balance.
“I won’t comment on specifics, but we are investing in a range of systems, manned and unmanned,” Roche said. “Blackening the sky with satellites isn’t the answer. What we are talking about and doing is developing a range of capabilities, because you can’t do everything from space.”
One example Roche offered was the near decimation of Iraq’s Medina Division, which moved under the cover of a sandstorm during the war.
“It wasn’t detected by space-based assets, but by Joint STARS, which saw something moving,” the secretary said, referring to a modified Boeing 707 equipped with radar that seeks out moving ground targets. “It passed the data to a Global Hawk, which tracked it and gave commanders the information they needed to attack it.”
These new UAVs would not, however, be purely reconnaissance craft. Roche and Jumper also want the planes to be able to attack the enemy.
Roche has stressed the importance of speed in attacking terrorist targets in particular, and the need to assign aircraft multiple missions. That need is the central reason he restructured the F-22 fighter program, adding a strike mission to the air superiority jet, arguing its stealth and speed make it a critical system against rapidly moving targets, like terrorists.
Other senior U.S. military officials have called for intelligence tools more flexible than satellites. While satellites can offer global coverage, they are often transient or lack the fidelity to track elusive targets. A high-speed, stealthy UAV with long range can get to a hot spot quickly and remain undetected for extended periods.
“There is tremendous value in having a penetrating UAV that can either gather intelligence or deliver a precision payload on a target,” said retired Gen. Chuck Horner, the former chief of U.S. Space Command, who now advises the defense industry.
“You have to go to space to observe certain places. But there is a tradeoff. The farther out you go, the greater the degradation space imposes on what you are looking at or listening to.”
Remnants of the ’90s
The secret project, sources and analysts said, builds on decades of work in unmanned reconnaissance systems, among them two systems from the 1990s — The Tier III, which became the Global Hawk, and the Tier III Minus, which was Lockheed’s highly stealthy DarkStar. Both efforts were quietly ended in the late 1990s.
The successful introduction of a stealthy and fast reconnaissance UAV, however, could reduce the need for military recon satellites, analysts said. Even the National Reconnaissance Office is assessing whether emerging UAV systems and technologies could diminish the U.S. reliance on space systems.
In fact, the Air Force has been discussing the need for smaller, more flexible satellite systems that can be lofted into space as needed on short notice, such as 1,000-pound spacecraft that can be launched aboard smaller rockets, and the ballistic missile defense interceptor now being fielded.
Although spy satellites can cover vast areas, they are transient, predictable and hard to redirect.
For Air Force leaders, the wide-ranging UAV effort is a vindication, after sharp criticism from Congress, analysts and industry for appearing to be less than supportive of unmanned systems.
“Not bad for a bunch of fighter jocks who don’t like UAVs,” said one senior military officer, when asked about the black UAV effort.
According to Horner, the Air Force is far more open to unmanned systems than many observers believe.
“Now, as a fighter pilot, I personally believe that unmanned aircraft are obscene, but they have their place, certainly in a reconnaissance capacity,” Horner said. “But you don’t decide, and the Air Force certainly doesn’t, based on predilections about UAVs or manned systems. You start with the mission requirements and then consider the capability.”
What’s needed, he said, is a more rational debate over balancing space and air-breathing systems.
“We have locked our overhead sensors in the NRO, which is a space advocacy organization, and our air breathers in the Air Force, which tends to advocate airplanes,” Horner said. “So you get a nonconstructive argument about where we should be going.”