CAPITOL HILL: The congressional fight over the fate of Northrop Grumman’s 18 Global Hawk Block 30s is on, led so far by Rep. Norm Dicks on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
“The idea we would spend all this money to buy them and then put them in a hangar is just unacceptable,” said Dicks, ranking member on the HAC-D. The Air Force, Dicks told the assembled senior Air Force leaders, “must” find a use for the aircraft, perhaps NATO, the Navy or another group might be able to use them. He was not alone. Reps. Jim Moran and Jo Bonner joined him in raising fundamental questions about the Air Force decision to save an estimated $2.5 billion over the next five years.
The Air Force decision, Rep. Moran said, “really seems to be an about face.” He noted the House Appropriations Committee had approved $6 billion “over the past decade” to buy Global Hawk Block 30s. The Air Force has long said they were supposed to replace the aging U-2 fleet, which is about 25 years old, on average. As recently as six months ago, the Air Force reaffirmed that Global Hawks were the cheapest and best solution to provide airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
At the end of the hearing I asked Dicks if he had talked with Northrop about the cancellation. He hadn’t and said he didn’t know what solutions might be available to deal with the complex issues the Air Force faces since several of the Global Hawks are on the production line, a few aren’t contracted for yet and the rest are finished.
Will he push legislation to force the Air Force to do something? It may not come from the HAC-D but I think you can be pretty sure legislation will get written. Dicks said he’d be talking with his very good friend Rep. Adam Smith, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. Smith holds an adjoining district to Dicks and the two frequently work together.
Air Force Secretary Mike Donley clarified a few facts and admitted the service does not have all the answers to the Global Hawk issue yet. The decision to cut the Block 30 Global Hawks was made by the Air Force, not OSD, he said. Industry sources have said that the Air Force was overruled by OSD. Donley also made clear the service has not figured out what to do with the Global Hawks still on the production line or how to treat the money that has been appropriated for the UAVs for which contracts have not yet been issued.
The other hot news of the day centered on the flawed Super Tucano contract to supply planes to Afghanistan, which the Air Force canceled last week saying mistakes had been made. Rep. Ander Crenshaw made Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wince a bit when he said the latest goof “kind of brings to mind the tanker saga.”
Donley told the Florida congressman that he did not think the plane’s requirements would change. But this is not a competition that can be nuanced. “It is very likely we will have to go back and start from scratch on this source selection,” he told the appropriator. “It is not the way we wanted this program to be managed or for this to play out.”
In other news at today’s hearing, Moran sparked an interesting exchange with Schwartz about Lockheed Martin’s F-35A. He mentioned the “less demanding flight profile” recently approved by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council and wanted to know why this happened. Schwartz made pretty clear it came down to dollars and sense. The chief of staff said the flight radius was changed by 5 miles. “How much do we want to invest to recoup those 5 miles,” Schwartz asked Moran. The congressman dropped the line of inquiry. And there is a lesson about the 80 percent solution becoming reality. We may not be buying exactly what we hope to buy anymore. Instead, we are going to get the best deal we can find and afford. At least til the next economic bubble or the next war.