Northrop Grumman has taken the unusual step of publicly casting a key government customer as fickle for proposing to cancel the versions of the Global Hawk unmanned planes that were to replace the U-2s .
“Just a few months ago,” according to a statement released by Northrop, the Pentagon concluded that “‘the continuation of the program is essential to national security. ... There are no alternatives to the program which will provide acceptable capability to meet the joint military requirement at less cost.‘“ Northrop appeared to be referring to a memo reportedly sent to Congress early last year to justify continued purchases of Block 30 Global Hawks, the versions that were to be equipped with cameras or signals intelligence payloads to take over the roles of the U-2 fleet. The Nunn-McCurdy acquisition law requires the Pentagon to make a national security certification when program costs balloon more than 25 percent.
Northrop’s strong reaction was sparked by comments from Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, the service’s chief of staff, who explained the decision in a January media briefing about the 2013 budget proposal.
“The reality is that the Global Hawk system has proven not to be less expensive to operate than the U-2,” he said. “And in many respects, the Global Hawk Block 30 system is not as capable from a sensor point of view as is the U-2.”
Schwartz’s comments reflected long-standing complaints from intelligence analysts about seams in processed Global Hawk imagery, but his comments contradicted the latest figures in the Air Force’s Total Ownership Cost database. It pegs the cost per flight hour of the Global Hawk at $24,700, compared with $27,400 for the U-2, according to a Global Hawk supporter with access to the password-protected website.
In any case, Schwartz said the existing Block 30 aircraft — 18 planes out of a planned purchase of 42 — are likely to be retired and placed in storage. Each Block 30 aircraft cost about $215 million, according to last year’s budget documents.
Northrup said it continues to work on Block 30 Global Hawks and preparations for deployments in April.
Northrop already has a website in place inviting supporters to lobby Congress to reverse the U.S. Defense Department’s decision to kill the version of the Global Hawk unmanned plane that was to replace the U-2. The site, “Support Block 30 Global Hawk,” points out that parts of the Block 30 Global Hawk are built by workers in 42 states. The company launched the site about two years ago, spokesman Jim Stratford said.
George Guerra, Northrop’s RQ-4 program manager, said the company is disappointed in the Pentagon’s decision, and he laid out the company’s long-standing defense of the program: Global Hawks have flown missions over Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and participated in humanitarian operations in Japan and Haiti, he said. The aircraft can carry more types of sensors than a U-2, and the company is improving the performance of those sensors, he added.
Additionally, a long-awaited signals intelligence-capable variant of the Block 30 is about to undergo tests. Guerra added that the aircraft is achieving an 83 percent mission-capable rate, and he challenged the statement that the aircraft is more expensive to operate than the U-2.
“We believe the numbers show we’re actually cheaper than the U-2,” he said.