The U.S. Air Force is likely to retire its fleet of Block 30 Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned surveillance aircraft, an industry source confirms, breathing new life into the five-decade-old U-2 program.
On Jan. 24, analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, Arlington, Va., said the Pentagon is planning to mothball its recently acquired Block 30 Global Hawks, which are designed to collect imagery and signals intelligence. Not only would the Air Force stop building the aircraft, but existing planes in the current inventory would be retired.
The Air Force had been planning to buy 42 Block 30 aircraft. According to 2011 budget documents, the cost of each aircraft was around $215 million. It was not immediately clear how many Global Hawks the Air Force has.
The aircraft is being terminated mainly due to its high cost to buy and maintain, but it has also failed to live up to the promises that the program had originally offered, sources said.A knowledgeable industry source confirmed that the Air Force is killing the program.
“Yes, this is accurate — been a lot of discussion on the possibility of this a long while,” said the source, who was not authorized to speak to the media. “There is a high probability it will come to pass now unless Congress takes a major exception.”
But the industry source said that’s not likely to happen due to budget constraints.
“I don’t think that’s likely in the economic environment of this year’s DoD budget, and there are no real ‘hawks’ in Congress from California,” he said. The aircraft is built is both built and based in California.
A senior Air Force official would neither confirm nor deny that the Pentagon had deleted the Global Hawk from its proposed budget. But “clearly, FY13 is going to be a particularly tough budget year for the DoD,” he said. The official is not authorized to speak to the media.
Northrop Grumman officials could not immediately comment.
The Air Force declined to provide an official comment, other than to say that no budget details will be made available before the budget is released.
If the program is killed, Thompson said the cost of the U.S. Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) variant of the Global Hawk could go up, which could render that aircraft unaffordable. There is a proposal to equip the Air Force with the naval variant, he said, but that is unlikely to happen.
The Navy wants to use the BAMS aircraft as a communications relay and maritime surveillance tool with its 360-degree sensors that include radar, an electro-optical/infrared camera, Automatic Identification System receiver and electronic support measures.
One source close to the Air Force said the sensors, data links and other equipment on the Global Hawk are less accurate, and provide less resolution, less range and less collection capability than other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, particularly the U-2.
“As for the Global Hawk system’s capabilities, it is good at long-endurance flight with its so-so sensors,” the source said. “They are currently and will continue to be well below par.”
The Global Hawk has never lived up to the Air Force’s original expectations, critics have said.
Even if additional resources were added to the program, “it will never live up to the hype the Military Channel, Aviation Week, etc., have been leading the public to believe,” the source said. “The technology advertised as currently on-board many UAVs is nothing short of science fiction, not mature and won’t be until billions are spent to make it happen.”
Additionally, the Global Hawk doesn’t have the U-2 Optical Bar Camera, which creates 6-foot-long wet-film images of the ground. Congress had barred the Air Force from retiring the U-2 until all of that aircraft’s capabilities are replaced.
The Global Hawk is also far less reliable than the Air Force had hoped, he said. The aircraft “spends most of its time hiding in its hangar broke.”
The fate of the Block 40 Global Hawk, which is equipped with the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) radar, is not clear. The MP-RTIP is a powerful ground surveillance radar designed to create photo-quality imagery of the Earth’s surface and overlay moving ground targets over those.
Nor is it clear if NATO’s proposed buy of five modified MP-RTIP-equipped Global Hawks for its Alliance Ground Surveillance program or if Germany’s EuroHawk program will be affected.
The demise of the Global Hawk means that the U-2 has a new lease on life. Thompson said the venerable aircraft will now remain in service till at least 2023.