U.S. Air Force Defends Global Hawk Grounding Decision

 - March 16, 2012, 2:07 PM
A Global Hawk takes off from Beale AFB, California, where Block 30 versions of the UAV are based. (Photo: Chris Pocock)

U.S. Air Force leadership has defended the decision to halt acquisition and current operations of the Global Hawk Block 30 UAV, in favor of retaining the manned Lockheed Martin U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen Norton Schwarz told Congress that the move was driven by the federal budget reduction and influenced by a lower forecast requirement for medium- and high-altitude intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

“The sensor capability of the U-2 was better, particularly in EO/IR and to some degree on the Sigint side,” Schwarz told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC). This is a reference to the Goodrich SYERS-2, a long-focal-length, multispectral sensor that has identified hidden or buried targets, including IED placements, during many U-2 flights over Afghanistan and Iraq. Regarding Sigint, most U-2s carry the Raytheon RAS-1R system, although some have been deployed with the same Northrop Grumman ASIP sensor that is fitted to the Global Hawk Block 30. The Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation team criticized ASIP performance on the UAV last year. Proponents of the U-2 say that the Global Hawk cannot match its sensor performance because of the UAV’s payload, aperture and power limitations. Donley told the HASC that “we could not justify the cost” of improving the Global Hawk’s sensors to match those on the U-2.

Until the recent budget crunch, U.S. Air Force policy was to trade off any lesser performance in the Global Hawk’s sensors against its greater persistence, versus the U-2. But the higher-than-expected cost of acquiring and operating the UAV has finally tipped the balance. Schwarz said that the operating cost of the two systems was about the same, at $32,000 per hour. Northrop Grumman officials have disputed the basis for this calculation, but the UAV has twice breached Nunn-McCurdy acquisition cost escalation ceilings. The three Global Hawks bought in Fiscal Year 2012 cost $484.6 million, according to official documents. “Keeping the U-2 yielded $2.5 billion in savings” over the next five years, Schwarz said. That sum presumably includes the cost saved by not buying the remaining 13 Block 30 Global Hawks that were programmed. 

Eighteen Block 30 aircraft have already been contracted, of which 14 have been delivered. Initial operating capability was declared last year, and some have been deployed on operations to Sigonella airbase in Italy, Al Dhafra airbase in the UAE, and Andersen AFB, Guam.

The Air Force is sticking with a plan to acquire 11 Block 40 Global Hawks equipped with the advanced MP-RTIP ground surveillance radar. Seven have already been delivered. The service is also converting an additional two Block 20 aircraft to the battlefield communications relay role, making four. The Air Force bought six Block 20s as an interim imaging ISR collector before switching to the multi-sensor Block 30. A Northrop Grumman spokeswoman told AIN that the company still hopes that the decision to end the Block 30 program will be modified. The Global Hawk production line at Palmdale will in any case continue moving, thanks to contracts for the U.S. Navy Bams version and the German Euro Hawk Sigint version. An order from NATO is also expected.