The Global Hawk will finally replace the long-serving U-2 spy plane in 2015, a U.S. Air Force official told reporters Aug. 10.
"No U-2s in the Air Force in fiscal year '15," said Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, the Air Force's Global Hawk functional manager, at the National Press Club.
Thomas said he is confident that the RQ-4, as the Global Hawk is designated, will be able to match the capabilities currently provided by the U-2 as required by legislation.
"That's my job - is to look at that legislation and say if we can do it or not," he said.
One of the capabilities which the Global Hawk will have to integrate before it can replace the U-2 is to carry that aircraft's Optical Bar Camera, which is an extremely high resolution wet film camera. The Air Force is studying ways to mount the massive camera onto the Global Hawk airframe, but substantial modifications will be required to the sensor and the airframe, Thomas said.
"We're looking at a cooperative effort with industry to look at a universal mount," he said.
Thomas said he didn't know if the camera's wet film would be retained - a digital model might be a possibility.
Legislation before Congress might add another monkey wrench into the Air Force's plan to replace the U-2, however.
The proposed legislation would require the Defense Department to certify sustainment costs for the Global Hawk are less than the U-2's before the Air Force is allowed to retire the 1950s-era spy plane. According to the Air Force's Total Ownership Cost database, the U-2 cost $31,000 per flight hour while the RQ-4 sits at $35, 000.
Though the aircraft has had some teething problems where it failed its operational test due to poor reliability and mediocre sensor performance, the Global Hawk has come a long way, Thomas said.
"The [initial operational test and evaluation] was a spot in time," he said.
One problem that has been fixed is a problem with an onboard 25-volt electrical generator which would fail after only 170 hours of operations. Now that same component can function for over 6,000 hours, Thomas said.
"That's been solved," he said.
However, Thomas said that the aircraft is coming down in its operations and maintenance costs. He estimated costs had already dropped by about 5- to 10 percent.
There is still work to be done before the aircraft will fully rectify the problems identified by the operational test report, Thomas acknowledged.
But one source said that the aircraft was still not as reliable as it was once hoped.
The source said that with time and money, the aircraft will get better, but it will never live up to what was originally promised. The source praised the aircraft's long endurance, but said the sensors are currently sub-par and "will continue to be well below par."
The sensors provide less range, less resolution and less collection capability than existing intelligence gathering aircraft, he said.