The global threat environment is driving rapid, aggressive changes to how the United States executes its military missions. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the realm of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
The ability to understand battlespace activities in real time is fundamental to winning. It’s a key driver behind the major Department of Defense initiative of Joint All-Domain Command and Control. Today’s command-and-control systems were predominantly developed over the past 20 years in response to the challenges posed by operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, with the rise of China and an increasingly aggressive Russia, DoD leaders are seeking a new set of tools to deliver successful mission results against a new array of threats.
Making this transition at a time when defense resources are stretched thin is driving concerns regarding mission capacity. New technology is crucial, but numbers matter too. This means it is especially important to consider boosting allied access to tools retired from the U.S. inventory that may prove beneficial in allied hands.
Pervasive situational awareness is a recent development. While we now take watching multiple streams of full-motion video for granted, commanders used to wait days — often weeks — for still images from reconnaissance aircraft. Rarely did this information flow down to deployed field units. While space reconnaissance capabilities have existed for decades, most were reserved for senior customers in the national security enterprise.
Timely access to information turned a corner in the late 1990s and early 2000s thanks to developments in real-time, high-bandwidth data links, powerful sensors, onboard processing, and increasingly advanced unmanned aviation technologies that allowed ISR aircraft to stay aloft far longer than a manned aircraft. Types like General Atomics’ Gnat, followed by the Predator and Reaper, along with Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk, were gamechangers on a seismic level. Stories about top commanders — even secretaries of defense and U.S. presidents — staring at full-motion video feeds of live combat actions stand as powerful examples about the impact of this development.
Nor were these just technology demonstrations. The advancements in unmanned ISR capabilities were entering the operational realm at the very time demand was surging in Afghanistan and Iraq — wars dominated by a need for high-fidelity situational awareness. Understanding adversary patterns of life, sorting out friend from foe and finding fleeting moments to engage played directly to the strengths of these aircraft. Just like Desert Storm will always be remembered for stealth and precision strike, Afghanistan and Iraq will be remembered for the rise of “informationized warfare.” There is no going back.
However, these pioneer generation capabilities were also developed in an era where the U.S. had total control of the sky. That is not a prudent assumption for future conflicts. Adversaries watched in awe the power afforded by unmanned aerial vehicles and went about developing capabilities to target those UAV systems that lacked stealth, advanced electronic warfare defenses, speed and/or maneuverability. That means tomorrow’s ISR in highly defended regions will require a combination of far more advanced air and space capabilities.
This does not mean we should shed all the UAVs in the current inventory, for they can still provide highly effective capabilities elsewhere in the battlespace. While advanced threats require more capable and survivable UAVs, the reality is that most military operations will occur in permissive airspace most of the time. We will also want to monitor Russian and Chinese activities in peacetime without having to reveal our most advanced assets.
It would be prudent to carefully manage the evolution of our UAV inventory, for as the services seek to retire existing systems to fund tomorrow’s solutions, they risk divesting valuable capabilities and capacity that could prove incredibly valuable to our allies. In most cases, current UAVs have ample service life available and are still incredibly applicable in a broad range of venues. The Global Hawk Block 30s is one example. The U.S. Air Force is retiring its Global Hawk Block 30 inventory, but from an allied enterprise perspective they could continue to contribute within an allied air arm and do so in a fashion interoperable with U.S. systems.
Consider the power of a northern-tier nation acquiring these aircraft and using them to increase our collective situational awareness in the Arctic and other relevant parts of the world. This is a capability and capacity that combatant commands would like to execute organically, but the services lack resources to meet demand. Empowering allies can help fill these requirements. The numerous UAVs purchased over the past 20 years should be capitalized upon to empower our allies.
Bottom line: The U.S. faces an inflection point. Numerous UAVs will be exiting the U.S. active duty force’s inventory. We can either park them in the desert — grounded forever — or we can make them available to allies who have aligned interests. Their gain can also help feed collective information demands. Inadequate Air Force funding demands that such transfers not place additional pressure on Air Force accounts already stretched thin. Export rules like the Missile Technology Control Regime and general bureaucratic intransigence should also not stand in the way of these kind of innovative transfers. The reality is that UAVs are part of the new normal, and we either help our partners enter this era, or they will find alternate means of gaining UAV technology that may not align with our interests — like procuring it from an adversary. The time to act is now.
Douglas Birkey is the executive director of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.