As the U.S. Air Force restructures its inventory of aircraft to compete with China, a senior general said Wednesday, the service is taking calculated risks in its portfolio of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
In its 2022 financial budget request, the Air Force proposed decommissioning four of the 16 E-8 JSTARS aircraft, which are used for ground surveillance and targeting, as well as 20 Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 reconnaissance drones.
And while the service does not plan to withdraw any of its General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones used to gather intelligence and attack targets, it does plan to reduce the number of MQ-9 patrols in fiscal year 22 as the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan, he said. Lt. Gen. David Nahum, Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs.
“I think that although reducing the battle lines, because of reducing our presence in the Middle East, it is appropriate,” Nahum told members of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. “Now we will have the opportunity to look at those platforms differently and use them differently in competition, and in some of these places around the world with less competitive environments.”
Air Force spokeswoman Rose Riley told Defense News the service plans to reduce from 60 combat lines to 56 in fiscal year 22.
However, it will retain all of the MQ-9’s — its 300-plus air vehicles — and keep the workforce associated with the MQ-9 crews at current levels, Nahum said.
He said that while the Reaper and Block 30 Global Hawks are important to today’s missions, they are not optimized for surviving a battle against an adversary as close as China.
“The three most important things [are] The ISR platform that can survive the threat, continue the threat, and then communicate. Nahum said Global Hawk … was not designed with the threat we now look to from a rising China. “We have to look to the future, and this is where the risk taking with the combatant leaders comes in.”
Meanwhile, the remaining Block 40 Global Hawks will be “extremely critical” to the Air Force over the next six to eight years, to fill a gap in ground control procedure as legacy E-8C JSTARs aircraft become less reliable, he said.
Republican Senator John Hoeven lobbied Nahum to provide more details about the aircraft that would eventually replace the Global Hawk Reaper. Senator from North Dakota, Hoeven represents Grand Forks Air Force Base, where a squadron of U.S. Customs and Border Protection MQ-9s and Air Force RQ-4s operate.
Nahum said the Air Force intends to introduce “a suite of systems” to replace some of its outdated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, but he declined to reveal more information in an unclassified environment.