ISR asset? The head of Air Combat Command says fighters, which could include the F-16 Fighting Falcon, are playing a role in Iraq surveillance missions. (Staff Sgt. Chad Warren/Air Force)
Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage (Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is using a mix of manned and unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets to monitor the ongoing situation in Iraq, a top Air Force general said today.
“It’s what we call nontraditional ISR,” Gen. Mike Hostage, the head of Air Force Air Combat Command, said July 29. “We’re using fighter aircraft that have ISR capacities, like targeting pods, and things that give us a lot of awareness on what’s going on, on the ground.”
Hostage did not say which fighters were taking part in those missions, but assets in the region include F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-22 Raptor fighter jets, as well as A-10 “Warthog” aircraft.
Hostage, speaking at a breakfast event hosted by the Air Force Association, said there are unmanned assets also assisting, but stressed the importance of using manned aircraft as the US attempts to track Islamic States forces.
“There is a love affair out there in the non-aviation world with the concept of the unmanned platform, but I really need the human in that loop, and tightly in the loop in a way I have it in a non-traditional ISR platform,” Hostage said, before acknowledging “I need both out there.”
Those comments intensified when Hostage was asked about the decision to retire the U-2 manned spy plane in favor of the Global Hawk unmanned system — something he has expressed disdain for in the past.
“It pisses me of when [people] say the Air Force cut it,” Hostage said of the U-2. “I’m only losing the U-2 because I was directed to buy the Global Hawk, and the only way I can afford to buy Global Hawks is to cut the U-2.”
“The Global Hawk right now doesn’t have the same awareness that a U-2 does,” he added. “A U-2 pilot can still look out the window and see something coming and deal with it. Global Hawk can’t do that.”
“A human sitting in a box can have the same kinesthetic awareness of an aviator sitting in a platform in the middle of combat,” Hostage said. “The day will come when I can produce that. And when that day comes, I will be happy to stop flying manned aircraft.
“But that day is not here yet, so I still need the unique capabilities the human provides, so I’m going to need manned platforms, at least for a while. I don’t think we’ve seen the birth of the last human aviator.”
The Air Force detailed plans to retire its inventory of 33 U-2s in its 2015 budget request. Global Hawks would handle the high altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. Congress, however, may block the U-2’s retirement, with language in both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act preventing the Air Force from executing its plan.
The Air Force itself originally asked for the Global Hawk, Hostage said. But funding and requirements from combatant commands changed.
“The calculus was: I’ve got a U-2 that’s already paid for, that already meets the current requirement and will continue to fly for another 40 years. I can meet the requirement with that and I can save money,” he said. “We were directed to buy the Global Hawk anyway and were not given the money to keep the current fleet going and buy the Global Hawk, so I have no choice but to give up the U-2 in order to purchase the Global Hawk.
Don’t tell me I cut the U-2. I didn’t. I’m sacrificing the U-2 to pay for something I have to buy.”
In a perfect world, without budget restrictions, ACC would keep flying the U-2 and continue to develop the Global Hawk until it gets to the point where it can replace the U-2. But, the unmanned aircraft doesn’t have the capability and awareness that a U-2 currently does.
Northrop Grumman is developing a “universal payload adapter,” which would take the cameras and sensor equipment straight from the U-2 and attach it to the Global Hawk. It would cost about $487 million and take three years to develop and two years to produce, according to Air Force documents.
The main factor in pushing to cut the U-2 and not the Global Hawk was a drop in sustainment costs. The cost per flying hour of all Global Hawk variants dropped to $24,000 in fiscal 2013, with the U-2’s cost per flying hour at about $32,000, according to the Air Force.