Intelligence: June 22, 2001


: If the Bush Administration is serious about developing strategic unmanned spy planes, it will have to spent somewhere between $2.5 billion and $5 billion over the next six years to produce a workable force of a dozen or two such aircraft. At the high end of the cost range is an aircraft that is virtually invisible to radar (on par with the B-2), carries a ton or more of interchangeable recon and intelligence sensors, and can travel at supersonic speeds. At the lower end is an aircraft which would be much cheaper but couldn't be risked directly over enemy territory. One of the major costs of the high-end option is that it must use Low Probability of Intercept Communications as just Emailing its reports home would cause it to be detected. Data transfer rates for such hard-to-detect transmissions are simply too slow to handle the kind of data stream the UAV would need to transmit. New satellites would be needed to handle that much data flow. After the Chinese E-3P incident, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld held a secret all-day meeting with top military and intelligence officials involved in spy planes, surveillance planes, and other aerial intelligence assets. That meeting produced a consensus on several points:

1. US aerial recon (near but not over unfriendly territory) must continue. The US simply needs the information it gathers far too much.

2. The US must avoid any more incidents in which highly classified aircraft and documents (not to mention key intelligence specialists) fall into unfriendly hands.

3. The decisions after the Gulf War in which recon planes were retired on the promise of new stealthy drones (which did not materialize as they were too expensive) were unfortunate and have placed the US in the uncomfortable position of not having gathered as much information as it needs for the last decade.

4. A new stealthy UAV is needed for key missions.

5. Any new stealthy UAV has to be bought with additional money added to the defense budget. There is simply no place left to take money out of, and manned recon assets must not be cut until stealthy UAVs are in service and have proven their worth.--Stephen V Cole


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