Unmanned ISR aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper 'are useless in a contested environment,' says a top US Air Force general. (US Air Force)
NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. — The Pentagon needs to move away from Predator and Reaper unmanned systems and establish a fleet of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft that can handle contested environments, a top Air Force general said Tuesday.
“There’s a specific study that we’re embarked on to take an enterprise look at how we do ISR, and my view is that needs to be a broader enterprise than just the Air Force,” Gen. Mike Hostage, head of Air Combat Command, told reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference. “We are working it, and then we will take it to OSD [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] to recommend we take a bigger look.”
As part of a strategy shift, the Pentagon should abandon a long-held plan for 65 combat air patrols (CAPs) of Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, Hostage said.
“We’re trying to convince OSD that the 65 CAP count made sense when it was given, or at least it made sense to the people who gave it to us when it was given, but that is not the force structure the nation needs or can afford in an anti-access, air-denied environment,” he said.
“Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment. They’re not useless in a total concept, but I don’t need 65 CAPs,” he added. “65 is not the right number. I need to shift the demographics of the ISR fleet.”
Hostage declined to go into details on what that fleet might look like, but indicated it would be through a family of systems rather than reliance on one or two platforms.
“In terms of how we do ISR in a contested environment, I’m looking at different ways to do with flying platforms and with non-flying platforms,” he said. “We have shown our joint partners a way of war they are not going to want us to back away from, and building a fleet of 65 Predator/Reapers is not the answer.”
Given the budget environment, Hostage acknowledged that getting a new platform off the ground was unlikely.
Recap vs. modernization
Echoing statements made by other generals this week, Hostage said that small, horizontal cuts to programs would not be enough to meet reduced budgets.
“The only way you really save money is making entire weapon systems go away,” he said.
Hostage held up the MC-12 ISR planes as a capable fleet of aircraft that may need to face the chopping block. “I’d love to have it, but if I can’t afford it, there are other things I need more desperately,” he said.
Another fleet that could be chopped is the A-10 attack jet. Although not ideal, the service could do close-air support with the F-35 joint strike fighter, Hostage said.
Hostage said, however, that he would fight to maintain at least part of the F-15C fighter fleet.
“I don’t have enough air superiority capability as it is, so I’d be desperately in trouble if I got rid of an entire fleet of F-15Cs. So that’s probably not likely,” he said. At the same time, “I’m not saying that we wouldn’t rid of some.”
The biggest question facing the Air Force is whether to cut current capability in order to modernize or focus on recapitalization of old platforms and risk those being out of date in a future conflict.
“I have to choose between modernization and recapitalization. I don’t want to do that,” Hostage said. “But they’re telling me, ‘There’s not enough money, so what do [I] want?’”
“I’ve got to pick recapitalization over modernization, because if I pick modernization I face arriving in the midst of the next decade with a 45-year-old fighter fleet that no matter what how much you [update], it is not technically viable when you get to the middle of the next decade,” he said. “I think the only choice is to recapitalize, and the issue is how much risk do I have to take by not modernizing.”