The Complex

Son of a Blackbird: The Pentagon Eyes New Stealth Spy Plane

The general responsible for preventing World War III wants a new strategic reconnaissance plane to help him do it.

The Pentagon needs a new stealth plane capable of flying over the world's most heavily defended airspace and scooping up secrets, said U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, head of U.S. Strategic Command, today.

"We know that there will have to be some kind of penetrating" spy plane in the coming years, said Kehler, the man in charge of defending America from nuclear, cyber, and space (seriously) attack, during a breakfast with reporters in Washington.

Think of this plane as a successor to the legendary Cold War era SR-71 Blackbird (shown above). That jet flew at the edge of space at speeds of up to Mach 3 while taking pictures of the Soviet Union and other places the United States wanted to know more about.

In the two decades since the Cold War ended and the SR-71 was retired, the United States has largely relied on satellites to provide overhead spy imagery of the world's most heavily defended airspace.

Now, however, new threats to satellites -- think of China's anti-satellite missiles and cyberweapons -- mean that the United States may need to back them up with an air-breathing spy jet. What's old is new again.

(The United States is already looking to back up communications and GPS satellites using aircraft in an effort called the Joint Aerial Layer Network.)

"As you watch the potential threat develop to space assets, [it] is forcing us to go back and look again at how much penetrating air ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] we're going to need and what that should look like," said Kehler. "I don't know what that will look like."

Meanwhile, over the last decade of conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. military has fielded tons of new spy planes. However, almost none of them are stealthy. Most are relatively low-flying, propeller-driven drones or manned planes based on small, slow civilian planes. While these planes are great for finding terrorists, none of them would survive long in a fight against a sophisticated adversary.

It remains to be seen whether this aircraft will be part of the U.S. Air Force's new long-range stealth bomber program or any other stealth strike aircraft the United States is fielding.

"Are they going to be sensors as well as shooters?" asked the four-star general rhetorically. "All of those issues are on the table, particularly at this time when we have very interesting budget discussions going on."

The air service is developing a highly classified fleet of about 100 new stealth bombers expected to enter service in the 2020s (they're also expected to cost more than $500 million each). These jets will have the ability to carry out nuclear and conventional strike missions, and they might have the ability to be optionally manned. This means that the jets can be remotely controlled for some of the most dangerous conventional missions -- something that high-end reconnaissance sorties certainly qualify as.

The United States also has stealth fighters like the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that are loaded with advanced sensors and stealthy spy drones like the RQ-170 Sentinel. These jets will no doubt play a role in providing information from contested airspace, but these are tactical jets, not the big, fast, long-range, super stealth planes -- "national level assets," as military commanders like to call them -- envisioned by Kehler that complement strategic bombers.

If you want to read the tea leaves based on his comments, look at his words about budget constraints. They suggest that, among other options, the military is looking at how to pack spy gear onto its fleet of ultra-expensive new bombers that are rumored to be in secret development at sites in the American West like Air Force Plant 42 in Palmdale, Calif., and Area 51 in Nevada. Even with the pivot to Asia and its emphasis on strategic weapons, U.S. defense officials will be hard-pressed to justify another super-expensive aircraft program given today's focus on saving federal cash. (Budget concerns are already prompting some in the Air Force to talk about scrapping or at least delaying the new bomber's unmanned capabilities.)

Another option could be that the military is looking at how to use other secret stealth drones, or even new missiles currently in development, combined with new sensors as the model for a strategic spy aircraft.

The urgency with which the United States pursues a new high-end spy plane will likely be driven by how quickly "the threat related to space" systems changes, said Kehler.

So there you have it. Twenty years after the United States retired its fleet of super-sexy spy planes in favor of satellites, it has decided that there is once again a need for such aircraft. (I suppose this gives all the aircraft spotters hanging out in the Nevada desert who have been wondering what the United States would replace the SR-71 with have something to look forward to.)

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