The U.S. Air Force is preparing to deliver a modernization plan for the service’s airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets–a report to be sent to the congressional defense committees by March 30 under Section 142 of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“The Air Force ISR modernization is in its final stages of review and will be delivered to Congress as mandated by the 2021 NDAA,” the service said on March 17.

The report is to analyze all current airborne ISR missions and those future ones deemed necessary to support the 2018 National Defense Strategy; the “platforms, capabilities, and capacities” to execute such missions; the anticipated life-cycle cost for each platform, capability and capacity requirement; and the operational, budget and schedule trade-offs among sustainment of current systems, modernization of the latter, and research and development/fielding of new capabilities.

The Air Force planned to retire 24 Northrop Grumman [NOC] Block 20/30 RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones in fiscal 2021, but now the service says that it is moving ahead with retiring just the Block 20 aircraft.

The service said on March 17 that “it is approved to divest the Block 20 RQ-4, but is not divesting the Block 30 RQ-4.” The Air Force has four Block 20 RQ-4s, which are to retire this year, and 30 Block 30 and Block 40 RQ-4s.

Section 136 of the fiscal 2018 NDAA stipulated that, before retiring RQ-4s or Lockheed Martin [LMT] U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, the Pentagon must certify that the forecast operations and sustainment costs for  replacements for the RQ-4 and U-2 will be less than the comparable costs for those platforms. In addition, the Pentagon has to certify that it will replace the aircraft with equal or greater capabilities and that RQ-4 and U-2 retirements will not diminish ISR capacity available to combatant commanders.

DoD may seek a waiver from the certification requirements, if the secretary of defense “determines, after analyzing sufficient and relevant data, that a greater capability is worth increased operating and sustainment costs” and provides that analysis to Congress, per Section 136 of the fiscal 2018 NDAA.

“The Air Force is working with the Office of the Secretary of Defense on a waiver letter,” the Air Force said on March 17. “Additionally, the Air Force has provided members of Congress classified briefings on aspects of the transition plan to the future design needed to be relevant in a highly contested environment.”

Defense authorizers continue to be concerned with the Air Force’s lack of compliance with the fiscal 2018 NDAA provisions regarding retirements of the RQ-4 and U-2.

“Contrary to section 136 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, the Air Force did not provide either the required certifications or a waiver from the Secretary of Defense,” per the conference report on the fiscal 2021 NDAA.

“The conferees further note that, 10 months after the fiscal year 2021 budget submission, neither of these existing requirements for RQ–4 aircraft retirement have been met,” the report said. “The conferees understand and acknowledge that modernizing airborne [ISR] capabilities will necessitate divestment of legacy systems. However, the conferees remain concerned about the Air Force’s continued inability to execute an ISR acquisition and replacement plan that appropriately manages operational risk to the global combatant commanders, as well as the service’s failure to comply with current public law. However, until the Air Force provides a comprehensive ISR modernization plan…the conferees will continue to be concerned about the sequence of retiring
operational aircraft without a suitable replacement capability in place and available.”

While the Air Force considers RQ-4 and U-2 replacements, some upgrades continue. For example, the service is moving forward with a planned $50 million avionics/touchscreen cockpit/open mission systems update for the U-2