USAF’s Eyes in the Sky

Nov. 28, 2017

An RQ-4 Global Hawk taxis on the runway after a sortie for Opeation Inherent Resolve. Photos: SrA. Tyler Woodward; Jennifer Hlad

Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, important in any conflict, are mission-critical in an air war like Operation Inherent Resolve.

“We don’t hop in a jet, start it up, and go look for something to take out or to bomb,” noted Col. Mark S. Robinson, vice commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing. “There is a whole process” that goes into that—and the ISR provided by the 380th is a big piece of the process.

The wing’s 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron provides ISR through two platforms: the U-2 Dragon Lady and the RQ-4 Global Hawk. Both fly at high altitude, giving them a different perspective than medium- and low-altitude platforms.

Lt. Col. Neal Hinson considers the platforms fundamental for the wars in Southwest Asia. The deputy commander of the 380th Expeditionary Operations Group, Hinson called ISR “the baseline for everything that happens in this theater,” adding that the foundation “for just about everything we do in the Air Force” comes from intelligence.

Before targets can be struck, a great deal of attention needs to be paid to it, he explained, and that can’t be taken for granted.

“How do you get the pattern of life for the people we’re about to kill? How do you figure out if they’re the right people to kill? How do you figure out the right people you need to save? Well, that is all ISR, and that’s what we do; … We bring that strategic ISR part,” he continued.

With the U-2 and the Global Hawk, high altitude is an asset because, the “higher you are, the farther the sensors can see,” explained a Lieutenant Colonel named Heather, commander of the 99th ERS. (For security reasons, the Air Force withholds the full names of some deployed airmen.)

High-altitude ISR is the “eyes and brains” of the fight, said 1st Lt. Eddie Nuñez, intelligence officer for the 99th ERS.

“You don’t hear much about ISR on the news. You hear, ‘A strike was conducted here.’ Oh, awesome, but before that strike, high altitude was there, and we did what we did, and then we said, ‘You can go ahead and do your thing,’?” Nuñez added.

Sorting Out the Combatants

The capability is particularly important in Syria, where the airspace is contested, he said.

High-altitude ISR “keeps the peace,” Nuñez explained.

“Just knowing where the enemy is at all times” means “we’re not shooting each other accidentally,” he said. Knowing where friend and foe alike are means “you don’t … drop on the wrong guy.”

Robinson said the two high-flying platforms give the 380th AEW the capability “to see, to connect, to listen— … almost the five senses.”

This awareness is crucial not just from the perspective of US forces in the area, but “from a national standpoint,” Robinson said.

There’s an “insatiable demand for the products that we provide … because people want to have the ability to make the right decisions,” he said, adding that he “can’t fault anybody for wanting to know all the facts.”

The 380th AEW’s manned high-altitude ISR platform is the U-2, an airplane Hinson described as “the most reliable truck.”

“We carry any payload to high altitude really fast,” said Hinson, who is also a U-2 pilot. “That’s what differentiates us from any other platform.”

While most new aircraft are completely integrated, the U-2 has empty spaces built in, to enable it to carry a variety of sensors and payloads. Major Cody, a U-2 pilot with the 99th ERS, likened the aircraft to a Mr. Potato Head toy because of its adaptability and all the things that can attach to it.

The U-2 also can power the payloads, which is necessary in the extreme cold of high altitudes.

“Yesterday, for example, I saw minus 84 degrees (Celsius),” he said during a late September interview. “Minus 84 freezes normal gas. It freezes electronics with sophisticated circuitry. They’re ruined forever.”

One pilot learned that the hard way when she took her iPod and MacBook Pro up in the plane, and they were completely destroyed, Hinson said. It makes the onboard power “incredibly important.”

“You need to have heaters and coolant pumps, and warm-up pumps, and everything else to power the sensors and keep the sensors safe if you’re going to work in that kind of extreme environment,” he said.

The glider-like U-2 has long, narrow wings and is eager to climb, Hinson said. For takeoff, pilots “almost stand the thing on its tail to keep from overspeeding it, and it just goes,” he noted.

Dragon Lady pilots wear a bright yellow four-layer space suit that holds and controls air pressure, and they breathe 100 percent oxygen in their airtight helmets. Missions last up to 12 hours, meaning pilots can’t touch their faces to scratch their noses or cover a sneeze for that entire period. They eat food paste squeezed into the helmet through a special valve that keeps it airtight and drink water in much the same way.

About 97 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere is below the pilots when they’re operating, Hinson said, and while there is some air up there, “we wear the space suit for a reason.”

The cockpit is now pressurized to an altitude of 14,000 feet—until recent years, it was higher—but it’s still very demanding, physically, to fly the U-2, Hinson said.

_You can read this story in our print issue:

Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

Takeoffs and landings are a challenge. The long nose and restricted side view mean pilots have few cues to tell them how far off the ground they are during those phases of flight. Major Cody, identified only by his call sign for security purposes, explained that in landing, pilots need to take the jet down to about two feet off the ground, and then allow it to stall and “wait for the airplane to run out of energy” and settle to the ground.

Pilots train to be able to land the jet on their own, but generally have help from a “mobile”—another U-2 pilot in a sports car racing behind the jet, telling the pilot how far he or she is off the ground. The mobile also assists in steering the jet on the runway, because it doesn’t turn easily and has very long wings that are only a few feet off the ground.

The original U-2 was designed in the 1950s—though Hinson points out the models here are all from the 1980s—and the Air Force had discussed retiring it in 2019, but has shelved those plans for now.

Maj. Gen. James F. Martin Jr., the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, told reporters in May that the Air Force plans “to keep that platform well into the future,” and that the 2018 budget included no retirement date for the jet.

“That’s a capability that we need and we also need the capacity,” he said during a Pentagon press conference.

The U-2 was for a time slated to be replaced by the Global Hawk, but since the U-2 flies much higher and faster than the unmanned aircraft, Martin said the Air Force needs “both to meet the demand for ISR.”

That demand is so high that there “will never be enough jets to satisfy” it, asserted First Lieutenant Ciara (last name withheld), an RQ-4 pilot with the 99th ERS.

The role of the Global Hawk is “to develop the big picture” long before that picture can be narrowed down to a specific target, she said.

Global Hawk operations are different than those of the U-2. Because the RQ-4 carries no onboard pilot, missions are flown by pilots based in the US, but are launched and landed by pilots at Al Dhafra.

“We do basically the same things any other pilot would do—we just aren’t in the actual jet,” she said.

The aircraft can run up about 30 hours at a time and has a wingspan of about 130 feet, said SSgt. Tylher Coleman, a Global Hawk crew chief. There are three different types of airframes: the Block 30, the Block 40, and the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, which provides command and control capabilities.

Each does different things, and each is mission-essential, Coleman said.

Block 30s are used mainly for images and signals intelligence, to provide future targets to pursue. Block 40s have a similar imagery mission, but provide ground mobile targeting, she said.

Day and night, there is always an RQ-4 in the air, which keeps the pilots and maintainers very busy, Lieutenant Ciara said.

“If everything goes according to plan, we’re pretty busy,” but they’re even busier when something doesn’t go according to plan. Luckily, she said, the maintenance crew is great at flexing with the mission.

“The maintainers spend more time with our jets than we do,” she noted. Those fighting ISIS and the Taliban on the ground can’t be supported “without … the guys who are on the ground here.”

The RQ-4 is a relatively new aircraft and therefore new to the theater, but U-2s have been based here for years. 99th ERS Commander Heather said she first came to the base in 2006 as a captain. She and Hinson were both here in 2007.

Humble Beginnings

Since then, she said, “the mission of the 380th has expanded greatly,” and the support side has grown to meet that demand.

“I think the first time I was here, it was a big deal when they started to put rocks and paving stones down for pathways to keep the dust down,” she recalled.

Now, she said, the high-altitude ISR squadron provides information about a wide area, in contrast to MQ-9s, which may get more media attention because of their attack capabilities.

“I think we’re … unique, and something we’re very proud of is, the stuff that we’ll collect is from national-strategic all the way down to very battlefield-tactical type of information. It just depends on the mission and the day,” she said. “OIR missions are incredibly dynamic and changing.”

While the Air Force does have some “more pinpoint, soda straw” sensors on other aircraft, Heather noted that “it’s not a very effective use of those assets if they don’t have an idea of where to put that sensor first.” The U-2 and Global Hawk provide that.

Not all missions are about enabling strikes. Simply collecting information not intended to enable an attack is also extremely useful.

“I’ve worked on operations where the effect was entirely non-kinetic, and it was very effective,” Hinson said. “We saved deployments, everything else, because of the information that we were able to provide.”

The manned and unmanned platforms give the 380th AEW high-demand capability that the commanders lean on heavily. The ISR assets flying out of Al Dhafra allow the airmen to deliver airpower for the combined force air component commander “like no other base in this AOR,” asserted wing vice commander Robinson.