Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. graphic

WASHINGTON: The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have found the $5 billion in cuts required under the budget deal. As HASC chairman Mac Thornberry promised, some of them are painful. The committees released the detailed list Tuesday after close of business, formatted into categories only a legislative aide could love, such as “Increases to… Keep reading →

Air Force photo

PENTAGON CITY: The dirty secret of so-called “unmanned” systems is they require a whole lot of men — and women — to operate them. They’re just back at base, running things remotely, rather than hands-on in the aircraft. With the Air Force drone community overworked and undermanned, the service’s intelligence chief has suggested a Solomonic… Keep reading →

Deborah Lee James

WASHINGTON: Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James warned Congress today that its effort to stop the retirement of the A-10 Warthog and other aircraft could hurt the service’s modernization plans. In a speech before the National Aeronautic Association, James noted the service wants “to transfer and divest some older aircraft in order to free up… Keep reading →

MQ-9 Reaper drone

WASHINGTON: Even unmanned aircraft need people to make them fly. Today, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced stopgap measures to shore up overworked drone squadrons. At the same press conference, the service’s Chief of Staff pledged to plug another personnel gap, the shortage of skilled maintainers for the manned F-35 — but, Gen. Mark… Keep reading →

Predator drone operators.

WASHINGTON: The Air Force has worried for almost a decade about the strains on its workforce as it fields more and more Predators, because drones need more people to fly them than do manned aircraft. Now, the head of Air Combat Command has told his boss, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, that he is “extremely concerned” about… Keep reading →

Reaper MQ-9 in flight

UPDATED: Head of Air Force ISR, Lt. Gen. Otto,  Says IG Info Out of Date WASHINGTON: The Air Force planned to buy 401 Reaper drones for $76.8 billion but didn’t know why it was going to buy that many, the Pentagon’s Inspector General says in a new report. “This occurred because Air Combat Command officials did not: follow… Keep reading →

Obama Holds News Conference On Debt Ceiling Talks At White House

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama today outlined a careful commitment of US forces to Iraq, pledging to watch any “mission creep” as he sends an initial 300 special operations advisors to gauge the strengths, weaknesses and cohesiveness of Iraq’s security forces as they battle the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The U.S., Obama… Keep reading →

Obama Holds News Conference On Debt Ceiling Talks At White House

UPDATED: With Congressional Staff Reaction PENTAGON: With an eye on a Congress it hopes will cut it some slack, the Obama Defense Department today released a budget remarkable for its apparent insouciance, trimming the base budget by only $400 million from the 2014 budget passed by Congress. However, there is a catch. The most politically… Keep reading →

Why is the military’s elite research arm so interested in robots with legs? It isn’t speed.

Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah robot, funded by DARPA, made headlines after it broke its own speed record yesterday and became the first robot to run on legs faster than the fastest human, track star Usain Bolt. Cheetah got up to 28.3 miles per hour . Sure, that was on a treadmill in a lab, with an external brace to keep Cheetah from falling over; but other, much slower Boston Dynamics robots like the “Big Dog” have already solved the balance problem and can walk on their own four feet over rough ground, even ice. So the obvious next step is to combine the two technologies to build a well-balanced, fast-running robot. But why? Keep reading →

WASHINGTON: The Air Force is holding off on filling the skies the next generation of the Reaper UAV. Instead of putting more aircraft into the air that gather more data, the service plans to focus on how to better manage the flood of raw intelligence already streaming in, says one top service officer.

The Air Force’s intelligence shop is putting development of the next-generation MQ-X unmanned aircraft on ice, opting to back fill its unmanned fleet with upgraded versions of the MQ-9 Reaper, Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance chief Lt. Gen. Larry James said today.

The Air Force recently included plans to buy 24 new Reapers
as part of the service’s fiscal 2013 budget request sent to Congress on Monday. Initially, service leaders had planned to replace the the Reaper with the MQ-X, once the plane was fully developed. The new drone would have been able to operate in heavily defended airspace. The current Reaper and its predecessor the MQ-1B Predator, are not durable enough to operate in what are known as anti-access/active denial (A2D2) areas. However, James said the suspension of the MQ-X was a “near-term” decision, indicating service leaders could bring the program back at a later date. That additional time will allow Air Force leaders to incorporate lessons learned from the Navy’s new Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator into the MQ-X, according to James. “It’s [the] prudent way to move forward.”

Until then, the Air Force’s No. 1 priority for ISR ops will be how to get the raw intel gathered from its aerial drones into the hands of service analysts faster, James said. Lack of commonality between the aerial drones collecting information from the battlefield and the systems designed to process that info continues to hamstring combat commanders. It has become a monumental task to shift data between the various unmanned systems and move them into the processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) cycle, Rear Adm. Bill Shannon, the Navy’s program executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons, told Breaking Defense last week. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley has tasked Air Combat Command and the Air Force Science Board to find ways to improve the PED process. Gone are the days when intel analysts would pour over aerial photographs taken by U-2 spy planes looking for surface-to-air missile sites, as they did during the Cuban Missile Crisis, James said. “This is not your father’s imagery analysis anymore,” he said.

Moving away from buying more unmanned aircraft and focusing on the fleet it already possesses represents a strategic shift by the Air Force, defense aviation expert Phil Finnegan says. A clear example of this is how the service handled its Reaper and Predator purchases in the fiscal 2013 budget. “Reaper purchases were cut from 48 last year to 24 this year while Gray Eagle purchases were reduced from 43 to 19,” Finnegan tells Breaking Defense. “That is because there has been a shift of focus in favor of improving the capabilities of the overall system by adding money for training and ground stations.” One example is how the service is looking to change way its network of Distributed Common Ground Stations moves data to service analysts.

The DCGS are the service’s primary nodes for collecting and sharing intel gathered by unmanned aircraft stationed across the globe. This new road map will help streamline how that info is stored, categorized and moved to intelligence analysts. Air Force leaders are also exploring how to better integrate “non-traditional” ISR assets — aircraft not originally designed to collect intel — into the PED, he said. That work is ongoing and will likely inform the service’s budget proposal for fiscal ’14, which is already in the works, James said.

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