UPDATED WASHINGTON: The Global Hawk is dead. Long live the Global Hawk.
Pentagon and service leaders are rumored to be considering reducing or canceling the current version of the venerable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone. The Block 30 Global Hawk variant will be replaced with the Cold War-era U-2 spy planes. The decision to cut or cancel purchases of the last 10 Block 30s will be part of the Air Force’s upcoming fiscal 2013 budget proposal, according to Loren Thompson, a consultant and defense analyst. But with the fate of the Block 30 variant sealed, the Air Force will reportedly move ahead with a newer variant of the aerial drone.
The Air Force is expected to request funding for three Block 40 versions of the Global Hawk at a total cost of $1.2. billion, according to recent news reports. The Pentagon will also push forward with plans to build a Navy version of the drone, known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system. The Navy is also working on a new carrier-based unmanned drone, known as the Unmanned Combat Air System.
It’s worth remembering that the Global Hawk’s multiple breaches of federally-mandated cost caps, including the one that prompted the June restructure, have proven a persistent headache to the Air Force. Ultimately, that concern pushed service leaders to offer the ISR drone as a “bill-payer” in the 2013 budget plan, according to Thompson.
Its unclear whether the Air Force will curtail or terminate the Block 30 line, but Global Hawk manufacturer Northrop Grumman was notified of the Air Force’s plans for the drone program last year. At the time, service leaders claimed the decision was simply a case of “dollars and sense” and had nothing to do with the capabilities of the aircraft, an official with knowledge of the program said.
However, one industry insider claims the Block 30’s rumored fate is directly tied to long-standing biases against unmanned aircraft within the service. “I think someone should congratulate the U-2 mafia for convincing the Air Force they have made a smart decision,” the insider said, referring to the cadre of former U-2 pilots who populate the air service’s upper echelon.
Since the Global Hawk’s inception, Air Force leaders have repeatedly claimed the drone would replace the legacy U-2. But as years passed, service leaders always came up with reasons why the RQ-4 was not yet ready to take the manned aircaft’s place. But in terms of costs, the insider claims the Global Hawk will cost $1 to $2 billion less than the U-2 over the next six years. The aircrafts’s per hour flight costs are, on average, $2,000 less than the U-2, the first official claimed. But those costs do not include the various logistics, support and personnel expenditures needed to operate the either the Global Hawk or U-2.
But in the drive to get replace the U-2 with the Global Hawk, a handful of top Air Force leaders have stacked the deck against the unmanned drone. Service number crunchers piled on seemingly unrelated costs into the Global Hawk’s bottom line, according to the industry insider. For example, service leaders folded in the costs for a new child care center at Beale Air Force Base into the program’s projected military construction costs, the insider said. Global Hawk is based at Beale.
“It’s the ‘white scarf’ problem,” the insider said regarding the perceived sandbagging of the Global Hawk program. “Guys who pull two G’s and [want to] become aces. That’s the Air Force and Navy of the past.” And that problem won’t be limited to the Global Hawk. The Navy’s UCAS will also face the same pushback as it moves from development into production.
But as U.S. military forces begin to pivot from Southwest Asia to the Western Pacific, what will be really interesting to watch is will the Pentagon order a new aircraft capable of doing the same missions as the Block 30 Global Hawk. Or will the so-called “U-2 mafia” continue to throw salt on the tail of every unmanned aircraft that comes along.