Air Force Manned Reconnaissance at a Crossroads

After more than 25 years of successful but one-sided combat operations, plans to replace the U.S. Air Force’s legacy big-wing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft with new jets are in doubt. As Air Force planners see it, advances by “near-peer” adversaries such as Russia and China put these valuable but vulnerable assets at considerable risk. The Air Force already canceled recapitalization of the E-8C Joint STARS in favor of the Advanced Battle Management System — an integrated network of sensors across multiple platforms — with the rationale that any new non-stealthy airplanes would be easy prey for advanced fighters and anti-aircraft weapons. A recent Air Force announcement puts a replacement of the 60-year-old RC-135 reconnaissance fleet in similar jeopardy, an ill-considered choice that focuses exclusively on combat survival at the expense of essential peacetime operations.

Aging RC-135s Demand Replacement

The Air Force faces a compelling need to replace the

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