Spy Eyes in the Sky

March 1, 2013
Neither the U-2 Dragon Lady nor the RQ-4 Global Hawk—the Air Force’s highest-altitude spyplanes—are new. The high-altitude U-2 harkens back to the 1950s, and its remotely piloted Global Hawk stablemate has flown since the 1990s. However, as the Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance needs evolve rapidly, the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, Calif., is reinvent­ing the way it uses the aircraft and how it trains their pilots and operators.

The Air Force wanted to mothball its fleet of 18 Block 30 Global Hawks in Fiscal 2013, preferring the U-2 for its lower operating costs and greater versatility. Congress didn’t go along with the proposal, however, so the Block 30s will keep flying, at least through Fiscal 2014. That means USAF will continue to need operators for the Block 30s and pilots for the U-2s. The Air Force thus wants to keep the U-2 flying to 2040 (at least) and maintain the Block 20 Global Hawks—fitted with a modernized communications package—and the Block 40 models, featuring the Multi-platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP), a moving-target sensor capable of tracking ground targets as well as low-flying objects such as cruise missiles.

Shattering the Paradigm

This is not the first time Beale has reconfigured its plans. The U-2 has also been on the chopping block numerous times, most recently being set to retire in 2014 but winning repeated reprieves for flexibility and unique capabilities.

Many of the airframes were built in the 1980s, the aircraft’s service has been extended substantially, and so the U-2 may continue to fly for 25 more years.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have heralded the rise of the Air Force’s unmanned ISR fleet, public attention has focused on proliferation of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper. Their operations in combat have become synonymous with airpower and global ISR in counterinsurgency warfare. Much scrutiny has been directed the Air Force’s way—both from its leadership and from the Office of the Secretary of Defense—concerned over how USAF meets the demand for RPA capabilities while ensuring pilots and crews receive proper training and development.

Co-locating primary training and operation of two dissimilar platforms—the U-2 and the RQ-4–is an unconventional ar­rangement, Beale officials pointed out. However, it has paid dividends for high-altitude ISR.

Remotely piloted aircraft “shattered this paradigm about where the aircrew has to be as far as controlling the airplane,” said Lt. Col. Stephen C. Rodriguez, commander of the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron, the formal training unit for both airframes. Each year, about 24 U-2 pilots and 60 RQ-4 pilots go through the 1st RS training program.

Despite their shared mission and similar long, thin wings, the two aircraft are very different. The U-2 has a long and storied history as the Air Force’s premier sensor “truck,” as Rodriguez and others referred to it. It has room for specialized imagery sensors and a great deal of power to spare, being essentially a jet-powered glider. A pilot onboard allows the aircraft to make unplanned detours and mission changes as requested by ground-based analysts.

The Global Hawk, by comparison, has a more limited suite of sensors and flies a carefully planned mission that it more or less carries out autonomously, once launched. It can fly extraordinarily long missions-28-plus hours.

Spy vs. Spy

The aircraft complement each other, Rodriguez said. U-2s can fly at some 70,000 feet, but its sensors differ from those on the Block 30 RQ-4s. Since 2012, USAF leadership has stressed this point in pushing to terminate the Block 30 program. It would be too expensive, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley has argued, to add sensors to the Global Hawk program that would match those that can already be flown on the U-2.

The U-2 for example, has the capacity to take extremely high-resolution “wet film” images that can be enlarged beyond the resolution of the digital images Global Hawk can capture.

Training for the two platforms is also very different. A U-2 pilot will, through the course of the program, qualify in a T-38 trainer, fly the TU-2S two-seat trainer, and then accumulate hours in the U-2S for mission qualification before assignment to the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale.

Global Hawk pilots, in contrast, go through a three-month training syllabus to become experts on high-altitude RPA op­erations, then are assigned to the 12th RS at Beale or the 348th RS at Grand Forks AFB, N.D. There’s none of the traditional “flying around the flagpole” for Global Hawk pilots-in-training, one of the reasons why the 1st RS can produce RPA operators at a higher rate annually than U-2 pilots.

There is tremendous flexibility and oversight in the training aspect of building Global Hawk operators, Rodriguez noted. In real time, pilots can fly missions on the other side of the world, with their instructors looking over their shoulders in the mission control element. RPA pilot trainees can cross the street at Beale and walk into an operational squadron flying live missions as well, he said.

“The [operational squadrons] are our prime customers. They are giving us feedback as to how we can improve our training process. We don’t have a tyranny of distance here,” he said. The U-2 trainees enjoy a similar access to operators, and a synergy exists between the two communities.

USAF leaders, such as former Air Combat Command boss Gen. William M. Fraser III (now head of US Trans­portation Command), have stressed the need to get to a steady state of RPA operations—a balance between training, operations, and career devel­opment of airmen who have chosen a path in RPAs. As of late 2012, USAF operated some 59 combat air patrols of coverage in US Central Command and was working to normalize operations. In the Fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated that the Air Force submit a report on the state of education, training, and promotions for RPA operators, citing their “persistently lower average “rates.

As the Air Force has kept on the U-2, while simultaneously expanding Global Hawk operations, it has steadily adapted how it organizes, trains, and equips for the worldwide ISR mission. Until last year, Rodriguez said, USAF drew Global Hawk pilots exclusively from other manned aircraft programs ranging from those who flew the now-retired RF-4s to RC-135s and even U-2s.

Today, the Air Force builds Global Hawk operators from scratch for a field known as 18X to airmen. USAF has developed this approach across the RPA fields—from Predators and Reapers to Global Hawks, said Maj. Ted Shultz, the RPA specialty manager in the Air Staff’s operations directorate. The Air Force will still take traditional pilots from other fields to provide a “shock absorber,” he said, until there are enough RPA specialists to sustain the career field.

The Air Staff estimates that by 2016, about 50 percent of the manpower in RPA pilots will be from 18X.

Imperfect Simulators

Initial candidates in the field now go through a contract flight-screening pro­gram in Pueblo, Cob. It concludes with a solo flight. Then it’s off to Randolph AFB, Tex., to qualify in a T-6 simula­tor, working with instrumentation and other aspects of flight and aviation fundamentals. From there airmen go to another course on RPA fundamentals at Randolph to gain more insight into ground control stations, switches, links, and RPA-specific issues. Once they complete this phase, airmen fan out to the different pipelines; the formal training unit for MQ-1 and MQ-9 is at Holloman AFB, N.M., while Beale provides Global Hawk training.

The Air Force hasn’t solved all the issues in its transition from training only pilots to training RPA operators as well. While it may seem there’s not much difference between training an RPA operator in a simulator and flying an operational mission, Shultz quickly points out it’s a bit more complicated.

“A lot … is dependent on fidelity of simulators and how you recreate train­ing objectives,” he said. “The simula­tors have made great strides in RPAs, but we aren’t there yet.” For an RQ-4, for example, an operator works with an unarmed, high-altitude platform, and while he doesn’t employ weapons, as a Predator operator would, he covers a greater distance, using sensors and working a different mission process.

Moreover, live RPA missions involve multiple data streams, a lot of Internet relay chat, and many other inputs, Shultz said. To simulate a mission with those additional elements realistically is a formidable task.

The learning curve drives a great deal of feedback and lessons learned be­tween operational and training squad­rons that fly Global Hawk missions, 9th RW officials observed.

“Beale looks at the whole thing as a synergistic effect. We have both missions here, and we leverage that,” said Rodriguez.

He sees his job as building “ISR experts”—regardless of whether they wind up in a cockpit or a mission con­trol element (MCE) operating a Global Hawk on the other side of the world. “Last year, I can safely say, we’ve operated in every single theater, and we’ve flown [Global Hawks and U-2s] across the spectrum of conflict, from humanitarian relief” to counterinsur­gency operations. But while pilots are at the tip of the spear for the Air Force ISR mission, Rodriguez pointed out, they are only part of a global network that is key to the Air Force’s strength in this mission area.

“We are primarily interested in the collection piece, … but there is a vast ISR enterprise” Beale plugs into, called the Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS. It has “thousands of analysts looking at what we vacuum up for them,” he said. Indeed, the Air Force DCGS comprises 45 geographi­cally separated sites around the world, one of them at Beale, operated by the 548th ISR Group.

Getting Healthy

Lessons learned from real-world U-2 and Global Hawk operations are being translated in a timely way into how the Air Force develops its high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) systems ISR training and the RPA operator cadre. Beale aims to find a good balance between training and operations as the operations tempo of a war footing slowly eases.

“We used to do all training in house with a single [RPA squadron], so instructors could bounce back and forth,” Shultz said of the RPA pilot field. “We’ve since separated those two, and I think we’re doing a lot better job balancing that, because we’ve had time to grow our own field and build an [instructor pilot] cadre.” This is true across the remotely piloted field, he said.

Regarding the future of the high-altitude mission, Shultz said the Global Hawk status quo remains. “If we did retire [the Block 30], it would free up individuals to support other [areas], yes. … As of yet, we haven’t made any of those moves.”

Global Hawk pilots face profes­sional challenges similar to those of their Predator and Reaper brethren; namely, since demand for these special­ists runs high, there has been limited opportunity for career development. This will be a focus area in the coming years, whatever the Block 30’s fate.

The small number of RPA units limits the number of leadership posi­tions available. There also haven’t been enough RPA operators available for the Air Force to readily spare some for staff positions, Shultz said.

“That being said, we are moving folks up as we get healthy with 18X coming online,” he observed. In the last two years especially, he added, the Air Force has worked to increase RPA billets in staff positions to better develop the field.

Much like U-2 pilots at Beale, RPA pilots need to be incorporated into the Air Force’s ISR mission. Shultz sees evolving mission requirements affecting this process.

“Demand is still high, and that’s not going to change anytime soon,” he predicted. But as more personnel flow into Global Hawk operations, and the RPA pilot pipeline fills up, the whole ISR enterprise will have more chances to get healthier: sending pilots to the right training, giving them more de­velopmental opportunities, providing opportunities to go to weapons schools, and other career development moves.

USAF needs “to continue to educate and work those pieces,” he said.

Teaching “the [Air Force Academy] cadets, the ROTC cadets, the new recruits on what the RPA mission is, where it is going, and the perspectives and importance of what the RPA plays in the current and future fight” is “a big education piece,” Shultz said. Synergy built between the operations and train­ing of RPA pilots over the past decade will help this process greatly, he said. “Time is on our side.” The longer the RPA pilots are in the field, the more USAF will be able to move them on to bigger and better things.

Rodriguez agreed, noting that whether his airmen go on to fly U-2s or Global Hawks, the goal is to help them innovate in the high-altitude ISR arena. “How can we be more efficient, how can you execute a mission set, and how do we find new and better ways to do our missions?”

A Century of Flying ISR

This month, the 1st Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale AFB, Calif., cel­ebrates the 100th anniversary of its activation. The Army organized the 1st Provisional Aero Squadron at Texas City, Tex., on March 5, 1913, initially with nine aircraft, nine officers, and 51 enlisted men in two companies.

Three years later, after Pancho Villa’s raids into the US, the 1st Aero Squadron joined us with Army Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing to support his expedition into Mexico. Under the command of Capt. Benjamin D. Foulois, the 1st carried out reconnaissance and communications missions. It became the first US tactical aviation unit to participate in military field operations.

Since its first deployment, the unit that became the 1st RS has maintained an unbroken flying heritage.

As the 1st Aero Squadron, it participated in four World War I campaigns; 13 Iron Crosses on the squadron patch symbolize the 13 kills its pilots scored against German aircraft during the war.

In World War II, as the 1st Bombardment Squadron, it flew attacks against Japan in B-29s, including raids on Tokyo and key industrial targets.

In June 1966, the squadron returned to its reconnaissance roots and moved to Beale. It operated the SR-71 Blackbird, a triple-sonic aircraft capable of flying above 80,000 feet and tasked heavily in the Vietnam War. Beale became home to the U-2 in 1976 and gave us its SR-71s in 1990, as the Cold War wound down.

In 1991, the squadron became the 1st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (Training), taking on the formal training unit mission for the U-2, a mission that continues to this day. The squadron expanded to include the RQ-4 Global Hawk mission in 2001.

Since its founding in 1913, the 1st RS has flown 47 types and models of aircraft and has been stationed at some 50 locations around the world.