The service had wanted to retire been in favor of retiring the Global Hawk and funneling that money into keeping the manned U-2 flying. B, but pressure lowered costs — and intense pressure from Ccongressional allies of manufacturer Northrop Grumman — kept the Global Hawk GH alive. Now, it appears set to be the high-altitude options for the future.
In last year's budget, the Air Force sought to retire the U-2 immediately, but Congress again intervened. In this year's budget request, the service instead said it plans to retire the U-2 in 2019, providing a buffer zone during which the Global Hawk can be upgraded.
Lt. Gen. Bob Otto, deputy chief of staff for ISR, called it a "smart move" to stretch prolong the life out of the U-2 out to 2019, in part because it gives the service time to develop and procure upgrades to the unmanned system.
"So one of the things we've got to do if we're going to divest the U-2 is invest in the Global Hawk," Otto told an Air Force Association event Feb. 18.
Otto then warned that if Budget Control Act levels return, the U-2 will be divested in 2016, which in conjunction with other cuts would lead to major gaps in coverage.
He also stressed that while price per flying hour is not the end-all metric, the Global Hawk's ability to cut its price in half in the last two years has made planning to invest in its future much easier.
Northrop announced in February last week that it had driven flying-hour costs price-per-flying-hour down to $14,876 in 2014. That number was $24,336 in 2013 and $33,598 in 2012. That cost drop occurred as the RQ-4 saw a 40 percent increase in flying hours between 2013 and 2014.
So what upgrades are needed? In addition to a weather radar, one major upgrade is a universal payload adapter, which would allow Global Hawk to carry a wider range of electro-optical/infrared EO/IR sensors, as well as legacy systems such as the U-2's wet film optical bar camera.
Mick Jaggers, Northrop's Global Hawk program manager, said the company is focused on developing the adapter as quickly as possible.
Jaggers said Northrop is paying for the adapter development using the development of the adapter is being paid for out of Northrop's internal research and development R&D money, and the company is "almost complete with our physical interfaces" on the program. The next step is to attach a sensor of the Air Force's choosing to the adapter and run a series of tests, including live-flight testing, to prove the system works.
Northrop intends to finish its have the proof of concept work done before the end of the year, although Jaggers noted that schedule is partly at the mercy of the Air Force, which would have to lend loan the company a Global Hawk system for tests. Once approved, given the ok, the plan is to push the open payload architecture to all future Block 30 models, including international customers.
Otto hopes to have clarity before the end of the year on what those upgrades would may look like, how much they will cost, and when they can be completed.
"I think we'll know a lot in the next six months as we find out where Congress is going to be on the budget this year," he said. "I think we're going to have to get a better feel for Congress and where their appetite is, where they're willing to spend money and where they aren't willing to, before" a final timetable is established.
The Global Hawk, and its maritime naval Triton variant, plays a large huge role in Northrop's plans for future international sales.
The company scored a bit of a marketing coup when it arranged for a US Air Force Global Hawk Block 30 to arrive at the Avalon Air Show in Australia, the first time the aircraft has appeared at an international trade show.
Ian Irving, Northrop's top man in Australia, told Defense News that having the unmanned system at the show was "a tremendous opportunity, not just for [the] defense community but for the general public."
He also praised the US Air Force for its willingness to send an asset down to Australia for the show, noting it "shows the strong linkage and collaboration between the two nations ... the interoperability and the commonality there will be a significant asset for both nations."
The Royal Australian Air Force announced last year it will had decided to procure the MQ-4C Triton model of the Global Hawk to meet its maritime surveillance requirement. The Triton, a variation on the RQ-4 being developed for the US Navy, comes equipped with an active, electronically scanned array advanced AESA radar and the ability to go below cloud cover.
Although details are still being finalized, the information released by Australia indicated it plans to a purchase seven of 7 MQ-4C models.
Jaggers sees potential for a future consortium of Pacific nations to buy into the Global Hawk program together, similar to the NATO Alliance Ground Surveillance program, in which 15 NATO nations will share costs to operate five Global Hawk Block 40s.
"When I look at the body of water, the oil reserves, the fisheries, all the things that require an airplane with the wide-area surveillance you get with a Global Hawk, those are perfect opportunities for people to find those common grounds and figure out a way to use this technology to help those nations," Jaggers said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.