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Why the Air Force wants to keep Global Hawks and retire U-2s

Mar. 5, 2014 - 06:46PM   |  
Beale's Global Hawk mission extends worldwide
The unmanned Global Hawk would replace the U-2 spy plane, which the Air Force proposes retiring in its fiscal 2015 budget request. (Staff Sgt. Timothy Jenkins / Air Force)
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The U-2 spy plane. (Master Sgt. Scott Sturkol / Air Force)

The cost of flying the Global Hawk reconnaissance drone has dropped to the point where Air Force leaders want to replace the venerable U-2, but the new drone still has years to go before it will match the Dragon Lady’s spy abilities, officials said.

For the past few years, the Air Force had pressed to cut the massive drone and keep the U-2 flying, with Congress repeatedly forcing the service to keep the drones flying. That all changed with the fiscal 2015 budget request released Tuesday.

“Last year, we were going to keep the U-2s and retire or shrink- wrap the Global Hawks,’’ Defense Undersecretary Robert Hale said. Now, “the operating costs on the Global Hawk Block 30 have come down. It was always a close call. Now it comes down in favor of the Global Hawk. We’ll keep them and gradually retire the U-2s.”

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said a drop in sustainment costs was the driving factor in this recommendation, with costs per flying hour of the Global Hawk across all variants dropping to about $24,000 in fiscal 2013. The Block 30 variant, which the Air Force originally wanted to send directly from the factory to the boneyard, flew 58 percent of the total fiscal 2013 RQ-4 flying hours.

The U-2’s cost per flying hour has “remained fairly stable” at about $32,000, according to the Air Force.

Other cost factors contributed to the budget recommendation, including the money previously spent on infrastructure for the Global Hawks, said Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.

“We’re finally bringing the airplane into the fleet, and we’ve been paying for the infrastructure to put it there,” Davis said March 5. “At some point your investment in being able to get that situated, normalized across the Air Force gets paid up and now you are just paying variable costs.”

While the costs have fallen, the Global Hawk still has catching up to do in terms of sensor capabilities to put it on par with the U-2.

“There’s going to be some investment we’re going to have to make in the Global Hawk to bring it up to the mission capability of the U-2,” he said.

This includes the “universal payload adapter” proposed by manufacturer Northrop Grumman, which the Air Force said last fall it was not going to purchase. The adapter, which would take the cameras and other sensor equipment straight from the U-2 and attach it to the Global Hawk, would cost about $487 million, according to Air Force documents. It would also take about three years to develop and two years to produce.

The cost could be mitigated by the savings of using the optics from already retired U-2s, Davis said.

But the goal now is not to put the Global Hawk completely on par with the U-2, rather to have the Global Hawk meet requirements set by combatant commanders, Davis said.

“It has to be ‘What do we need to get to the COCOM requirements,’ and that will be different,” Davis said. “The COCOMs said ‘I really like what I’m getting off the U-2, I’m going to need the Air Force to preserve that.’ ”

The Air Force has a fleet of 33 U-2s, which first began flying in 1956. If the budget request is approved, retiring the fleet would begin in 2015, and be completed by the end of 2016.

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