The U.S. Air Force is adding new sensors to the Lockheed Martin U-2 Dragon Lady and postponing retirement of the veteran spyplane, after the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk UAV failed an operational test and evaluation (OT&E). Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman has mounted a stout defense of its high-altitude reconnaissance drone, and Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter said the Global Hawk was still “essential to national security.”
The planned out-of-service-date for the U-2 has been changed from Fiscal Year 2013 to FY 2016, therefore justifying some new investment. It still flies daily reconnaissance missions from bases in the Mediterranean, the Gulf and Korea.
The BAE Systems spectral infrared remote imaging transit testbed (SPIRITT) sensor will be added to the U-2 by mid-2012. This hyperspectral system can detect, classify and identify camouflaged and concealed targets, according to BAE Systems. It was originally designed for the U-2 and Global Hawk, but to date has instead found limited application on the Raytheon shared reconnaissance pod (Sharp) for U.S. Navy F/A-18s, C-130s and two testbed aircraft.
The U-2 can already carry the seven-band multispectral SYERS-2A imaging system, and an additional two of these long-range oblique sensors have been ordered from Goodrich, making eight available for the 26-strong fleet of operational U-2S models. The USAF is also buying an additional four extended tether pods (ETPs, also known as Spur pods) from L-3 Communications, making 12. This pod is mounted on top of the U-2 fuselage, and provides a wideband satellite datalink of the aircraft’s imaging and signals intelligence payloads.
In his report released last month, the Pentagon’s director of OT&E declared that the Global Hawk “is not operationally effective for conducting near-continuous, persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance].”
During the 41-day evaluation last year, four Block 30 Global Hawks were evaluated in 19 missions over North America that took off from Beale and Edwards Air Force Bases. Because of low air vehicle reliability, exacerbated by shortages of spare parts, the Global Hawk could “provide only about 40 percent of requested coverage when used at planned peacetime or non-crisis operational tempos,” the report concluded.
At a media briefing today at the Paris Air Show, Ed Walby, Northrop Grumman business development director, will try to put the IOT&E report in context. Some of the faults were already identified and fixes were in hand, when the evaluation began, he told AIN last week. These included an unreliable oil pump on the main electrical generator. The system has been underfunded for spare parts, he added. Further, airspace integration issues that contributed to the poor rating affect all unmanned aircraft systems, and won’t be solved “until FAA regulations or policies are changed,” he said.
And since the evaluation, Walby continued, Global Hawks deployed to the European and Pacific theaters had flown 114 “real-world” missions in 45 days supporting NATO operations over Libya and monitoring the Japanese nuclear reactor failure. “The average mission effectiveness rate was 92 percent,” he noted. But some of the issues identified by the evaluation are puzzling, given that Global Hawks from low-rate initial production have already been deployed for most of the past decade.
Among other items, the report identified “incomplete maintenance technical data, inadequate training, and an ineffective integrated diagnostic system.” It also tagged the lack of anti-icing systems, which could restrict operations from cold locations, or during climb and descent. And it stated that it still takes over 100 hours to fully program a mission plan for a new operating area, plus an optional four weeks “to verify flight plan accuracy and preclude programming errors that could result in the loss of the air vehicle.”
Regarding sensors, the report noted that two modes of the UAV’s enhanced imagery sensor suite (EISS) supplied by Raytheon do not meet operational requirements: wide area search and ground moving target indication (GMTI). Moreover, although the high-resolution spot modes of the EISS got good marks, they “cannot provide target-quality coordinates,” according to the report.
Deficiencies identified with the other key sensor are more understandable. Only one Block 30 Global Hawk had been equipped with Northrop Grumman’s own airborne signals intelligence payload (ASIP) by the time of the evaluation. The company expressed confidence that three forthcoming software releases will resolve most of the issues, and noted that ASIP has already been “proven with over 300 operational missions on another platform.”
Ironically, that platform is the U-2, for which an additional two ASIP sensors are being ordered, making five.