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The Air Force's intelligence chief wants to use the stealthy, sensor-laden F-22 Raptor to collect information because spying isn't about specific platforms.
Lt. Gen. David Deptula made his case for a different use of the fighter during a speech before the Air Force Association, a civilian aerospace group that promotes air power and national defense.
"If I was king for a day, I'd get rid of these traditional, industrial-age labels" — the Pentagon-wide aircraft designation system that puts the F in F-22 — and use each aircraft for a wider variety of missions, said Deptula, deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Deptula was firm in lobbying for the F-22 as an ISR tool, saying the jet that officials have called a "Hoover vacuum cleaner of information" could "absolutely" replace intelligence planes such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint, but pointed out a technical challenge — getting the data off the fighter jet quickly.
Right now, the F-22 can share data only with other F-22s, using Intra-Flight Datalinks that can swap data undetected while over enemy territory. At last year's Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment, though, an F-22 shared IFDL data with several older fighter jets using a modified Northrop Grumman Battlefield Airborne Node data translator.
For Deptula, the F-22 would satisfy one of his biggest needs: a long-range, stealth spy plane that can survive the latest air defense systems being sold around the world by Russia and China.
Nonetheless, Deptula noted that large UAVs have "lots of potential." He showed a slide of a notional stealthy medium-sized UAV dubbed MQ-Xa, which could handle close-air support, ISR, electronic warfare, communications relay, collection, dissemination, specialized ISR and aerial refueling using a "modular payload" system sometime in the near future.
Deptula's comments Dec. 2 came two days before the Air Force acknowledged it is flying a stealth UAV, dubbed the RQ-170 Sentinel, in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
While sources in the Air Force and Sentinel's builder, Lockheed Martin, would not say anything more about the drone, there is widespread speculation that it is being flown from Afghanistan to spy on neighboring Iran, which has concentrated its air defenses on its border with Iraq.
Teal Group analyst Steve Zaloga, however, surmises the RQ-170 is simply a prototype. Flying the drone in Kandahar would let the Air Force "try it out in a more realistic environment than you could get in the U.S.," he said.
"I can't imagine the U.S. government would want a UAV [getting shot down] in Iran," since this would put the Air Force's latest stealth technology in Iranian hands, he said.
Instead, the RQ-170, nicknamed the "Beast of Kandahar" by the media, is likely the tip of the iceberg for a bevy of secret unmanned combat air vehicles, he said.
Aircraft such as the RQ-170, Zaloga pointed out, fulfill part of Deptula's call for stealthy planes that can penetrate 21st-century air defenses.
Zaloga said he sees stealth UCAVs as part of a project to build a replacement for the Air Force's retired F-117 stealth fighter in the suppression of enemy air defenses, known as SEAD.
The F-22 has its own mission, and it's not SEAD, he said. "Why are you going to waste an aircrew in the SEAD mission?" he said.