WASHINGTON — The Air Force will continue pushing for the retirement of its oldest Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawks, the service’s top officials said Friday, potentially setting up another fight with Congress about the future of the embattled surveillance drone.
“The Air Force will continue to pursue the [fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act] RQ-4 Block 30 divestment waiver in order to repurpose the RQ-4 Block 30 funds for penetrating [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability,” acting Air Force Secretary John Roth and Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown said in written testimony to Congress.
Roth and Brown testified in front of the House Appropriations Committee ahead of the service’s FY22 budget request, which has not been released.
In last year’s budget request, the Air Force sought to retire Global Hawk blocks 20 and 30 — a total of 24 aircraft — leaving RQ-4 Block 40s and the U-2 spy plane to conduct the high-altitude surveillance mission.
However, Congress blocked the retirement of the RQ-4 unless the defense secretary certifies that the divestment of those aircraft will not prevent combatant commands from being able to accomplish their missions and that the capabilities of a Global Hawk replacement will be worth any increased operation and sustainment costs.
“Until the Air Force provides a comprehensive ISR modernization plan, addressed elsewhere in this bill, [Congress] will continue to be concerned about the sequence of retiring operational aircraft without a suitable replacement capability in place and available,” per members of the House and Senate Armed Service committees.
The service has attempted to retire the RQ-4 multiple times since 2012 and has always been batted back by lawmakers. But if House appropriators plan to oppose new attempts to divest the Block 30 drones, they showed no signs of resistance during the hearing, asking no questions about the platform’s future.
The Air Force maintains an inventory of 21 RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 drones, as well as three Block 20 drones modified to the EQ-4B Battlefield Airborne Communications Node variant.
The platform was “crucial” for conducting high-altitude ISR over its life span and is relevant for missions today, but it cannot survive in a contested environment, Roth and Brown stated in testimony.
“Tomorrow’s conflicts will be contested. Moving beyond this platform allows us to bring the ISR enterprise into the digital-age by using sensing grids and fielding advanced technology that includes penetrating ISR platforms,” they said.
So far, the service has not disclosed how it plans to replace the RQ-4 — one prerequisite for getting a waiver required by Congress.
In a recent wargame carried out last fall, which was set in the mid-2030s, the Air Force fielded a notional Global Hawk replacement that was similar to an unmanned version of Australia’s E-7A Wedgetail aircraft and used primarily as a communications node instead of for ISR collection.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.