With no sign that the sequestration-imposed budget cuts are going away, the Air Force is going to have to change how it handles its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) architecture, the services top ISR official said Friday.
“We need to change direction in how we approach the architecture, and we’re looking for ideas,” Gen. Robert Otto told an audience of industry executives at an event hosted by the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. “So we’re concentrating on that right now. The notion is we get away from a propriety, very hierarchical type of system to something that is government owned, open architecture with competitions for the various applications.”
Otto highlighted the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) program, which aims to collect information from various ISR sources and give it a central clearinghouse, as a platform that works very well but needs to be altered to fit the new fiscal realities.
“It’s a tremendous architecture which can do incredibly powerful things that has delivered unbelievable success on the battlefield,” Otto said of the system. “It’ also completely unaffordable, and if we don’t change the way we do business we will fail.”
The movement towards an open architecture is hardly confined to the ISR world – the service’s simulation community has also expressed a desire to move in that direction – but Otto indicated a desire to move in that direction sooner rather than later.
In order to change how it operates, the Air Force needs flexibility for planning from the men and women who control the purse strings.
“What [sequestration] really means is we need to reform,” Otto said. “We need the help of Congress in order to be able to reform the way that we do things going forward.”
That includes being given the flexibility to retire either the U-2 spy plane or Global Hawk unmanned system, something that has been blocked on the Hill so far.
“Our plan right now is to divest the U-2,” Otto said. “We supported the department’s position on that this year. The Air Force was going to divest the global hawk before. Our point is we can’t afford both, and so far we have been unable to make the case to retire either one.”
He highlighted how the cuts last year directly impacted two key ISR assets, the U-2 and the Rivet Joint manned aircraft.
“Last year for the U-2 we had about a $210 million budget and we had to cut about $55 million from that, about one fourth….what that really meant was our aircraft availability decreased by 15-20 percent,” Otto said. “Or you can look at the Rivet Joint which had a bout a $270 million budget for the year and we cut about $90 million of that. What happened was, we had to ground two of the airplanes. It’s a 17 airplane fleet, so if you ground two you’re going to have impact on what we can present going forward.”
Otto, who spoke with Defense News in January about the future of the service’s ISR strategy, said he is still a firm believer in the role of drones – he joked about the service’s “unsuccessful” campaign to get people to refer to them as “remotely piloted aircraft” – for the future, noting that he expects an “explosion” of those systems by the early part of the next decade.
Spending money on unmanned systems is probably “a good investment,” he told the crowd. ■