Remotely piloted planes are the future.
Air Force officials have acknowledged this over recent years in their planning and budgeting. Today, more airmen train to fly drones than bombers and fighter jets.
But at least one part of that transition from manned to unmanned aviation is on hold.
Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk has been touted as the successor to the decades-old U-2 Dragon Lady, which pilots fly to the edge of space to look far and wide for intelligence. But officials announced in January that they planned to terminate the Global Hawk Block 30 program by relegating to storage 18 of the unmanned surveillance aircraft worth more than $1 billion.
The U-2 can still do a better job for less money, officials said.
The move would save the Air Force $815 million in fiscal year 2013 and $2.5 billion in the long run, they said.
The decision has led members of Congress to question the Air Force’s rationale and has left Northrop Grumman fighting to save one of its flagship products.
Some of the debate has to do with the numbers of U-2s readily available, some of it has to do with cost overruns in the Global Hawk program and some of it comes down to sensors. Those carried by the U-2 outperform those on the drone, officials said.
Much of that assessment is based on each of the aircraft’s ability to collect imagery. The Global Hawk carries Raytheon’s Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite, which includes cloud-penetrating radar, a high-resolution electro-optical digital camera and an infrared sensor. But the U-2’s radar can see farther partly because the plane can fly at altitudes over 70,000 feet, about 10,000 feet higher than a Global Hawk. A longer focal length also gives the U-2’s camera an edge, experts said.
The Pentagon declined a request for an interview saying that a discussion of the sensors in question would delve into classified information. However, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has said that the drone’s sensors just weren’t cutting it. Further, the U-2 can carry a larger payload, up to 5,000 pounds compared to 3,000 pounds for the Global Hawk.
“Some of the most useful sensors are simply too big for Global Hawk,” said Dave Rockwell, senior electronics analyst at Teal Group Corp. He referred to an optical bar camera on the U-2 that uses wet film similar to an old-fashioned Kodak. “It’s too big to fit on Global Hawk even as a single sensor.”
That’s not so, said Ed Walby, Northrop Grumman business development director for high-altitude long-endurance systems.
“Anyone who says that hasn’t looked at the drawings or done the engineering,” he said. “We can put anything you want on the Global Hawk.”
For a while, the Air Force seemed to entertain this concept and toyed with the idea of a modified Global Hawk, Northrop Grumman officials said. The company offered to build a bracket on the belly of the aircraft where different sensors could be swapped out “as quickly as you can click your fingers,” Walby said.
“If there’s a U-2 sensor that’s so important, so capable, so decisive, then why not put it on Global Hawk and fly it for 30 hours?” Walby said. Any sensor from the U-2 is three times more effective when put on the Global Hawk because of its longer endurance, he said. The U-2’s flights are limited by the 10 or so hours in a pilot’s shift, whereas the Global Hawk can stay up in the air for an entire day.
Regardless, the requirement for the drone was not that each sensor would be the best ever, but that the radar, electro-optical and infrared sensors would be carried simultaneously, Northrop Grumman officials said.
“When you’re flying for 30 hours over Afghanistan or Iraq or the Pacific or Japan during a tsunami carrying all three sensors such a long distance for such a long time, that is crucial,” Walby said. One imagery sensor is not enough, whether the mission is to fly over a natural disaster or spy on the Taliban, he said.
The electro-optical camera could supply a black-and-white image, the infrared could show temperature changes or the location of a fire and the radar could alert operators to a structure that has been modified, Walby explained. Users can overlay those three images and pick out specific items on the ground that wouldn’t be seen if the pictures were taken from different platforms or at different times of the day, he said.
“The Global Hawk was never meant to replace the U-2 one to one. Can it carry U-2 sensors? Absolutely. Is there a requirement for that? No,” Northrop Grumman spokesman Jim Stratford said. “To compare the sensors on the U-2 to sensors on the Global Hawk is an unfair comparison.”
But it is one that the Air Force and analysts have been making given the trying budget situation. In studying the issue, however, the service seems to have had a change of opinion on the matter. As Stratford said: “We fully understand the budget pressures, but what changed since last year?”
Less than a year ago, Air Force officials certified in writing to Congress that the Global Hawk was essential and that no other platform could perform its mission. The memo stated that it costs $220 million more per year to operate the U-2 than the Global Hawk.
But Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Schwartz were back before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March telling a different story: The U-2 was more capable, and the Global Hawk was too expensive.
The secretary and the chief defended their amended assessment before senators, some of whom appeared baffled. The switch in opinion resulted from a change in requirements, Donley and Schwartz said.
The Air Force decreased the number of orbits required for high-altitude surveillance. Officials would not go into specific numbers on the record, but the fewer orbits meant that the less persistent U-2 could continue to perform the high-altitude ISR mission at a lower cost, Donley explained.
The aforementioned certification of the Global Hawk’s superiority was based on higher persistence levels that would have been more expensive to provide with the U-2. But the change in activity level, along with less capable sensors on the Global Hawk, flipped the scenario around. The need for improved sensors on the unmanned aircraft would add cost to the Block 30 program throughout the decade, Donley said.
“When you put the costs of the two programs together on paper, it’s cheaper for us to continue with the U-2 program,” he said.
The U-2 has been flying since 1955. Since the first A-model, the plane has undergone several changes to stay relevant. It now has a quieter high-performance turbofan engine, a variation of the one used in the B-2 stealth bomber. The U-2 being flown by pilots today also is larger than the original model. This airframe can last through about 2040, Donley told senators.
“This is 2012 and we’re talking about how a manned aircraft can do a better job than a drone through now and 2040,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. “I just don’t get that when it comes to this kind of mission.”
Graham said he wanted to use the debate over the Global Hawk and U-2 as a case study on why programs cost more than they should, why they take longer than scheduled and to determine what exactly the vision is for the future.
“I envision more drones and less manned aircraft when it comes to surveillance because the cost of losing a pilot in a war is a lot less than losing a drone,” Graham said, noting that he couldn’t believe a U-2 would perform better than an unmanned aircraft for the next 25 to 30 years.
Schwartz agrees that in the long run remotely piloted planes will take over for the U-2.
“But I’m not dealing with the long run,” the chief said.
There are 33 airframes available for the U-2. It doesn’t have the legs or persistence of Global Hawk, but its availability was a key factor in deciding to stick with the Dragon Lady and terminate the Block 30, officials said. The Global Hawk was not maturing as quickly as they had hoped.
“The bottom line was that we acted under the pressures of the budget to rely on the proven U-2,” Schwartz said.
The Air Force planned to buy 31 Block 30 aircraft. Of the 18 already on contract, six now will go into non-recoverable storage, though their parts may be removed in the future for use on other aircraft. The remaining 12 also will be placed in storage but will be kept in “ready-for-service” status and may still be used either domestically or with partners. Four of the 18 have yet to be delivered.
Schwartz answered questions about budget and performance issues by explaining that the drone had an unusual birth and began life as a technology demonstrator. The program experienced delays, cost increases and trouble with aircraft subsystems, including generators. Still, the service isn’t giving up completely on the drone.
“We’re not getting out of the Global Hawk business,” Schwartz said. “We’re going to make use of the Global Hawk capability.”
The Air Force will retain the Block 20 communications platform and the Block 40, which will have the ability to create black-and-white images overlaid with moving targets. Global Hawk technology also will continue to be used by NATO and Germany, the chief noted.
But lurking quietly in the background of this controversy is another unmanned aircraft that may be better suited to take over for the U-2, some analysts said.
The Avenger is a next-generation drone being developed by General Atomics, the maker of the Predators and Reapers used so widely in Iraq, Afghanistan and along the border of Pakistan. It can’t yet reach the heights of Global Hawk or U-2, but it may solve the payload problem.
The Avenger can carry 6,500 pounds, including weapons, and lists a top speed greater than that of the Global Hawk. It is a jet-powered drone designed for a contested environment with stealthy attributes such as a recessed air intake, hidden exhaust and special body shaping. General Atomics is currently building the third Avenger. The first flew in 2009. The Air Force already has bought one as a test vehicle to develop next-generation sensors, weapons and tactics.
General Atomics noted that the aircraft is more affordable than either the U-2 or Global Hawk. Director of Business Development Christopher Ames quotes a price of $15 million for an Avenger. “It’s orders of magnitude less than U-2 and other unmanned aircraft,” he said. “It would seem a logical contender” to perform the high-altitude ISR mission, he added.
“Here’s a next-generation unmanned aircraft that is extremely versatile and combines stealth and speed and payload and long endurance at an acquisition cost less than manned aircraft systems,” Ames said. “There’s nothing like it in the skies today.”
Northrop Grumman officials said a Global Hawk runs about $65.8 million.
As of early April, the Block 30 cancellation remained a budget proposal. And analysts like Rockwell said it remains a possibility that the service would just curtail the program instead of doing away with it and scrapping aircraft that already have been paid for and delivered. Northrop Grumman officials said they would be fine with that.
The current program calls for 31 aircraft, 10 of which have no funding and would not be built if the termination holds up.
“We’re OK with that,” Stratford said. “We’re OK with not building those final 10. We’re OK with a 21 aircraft program.”
The company is more concerned about the mothballing of the 18 aircraft that already have been built or are in production, he said. In the near-term, Northrop Grumman expects its aircraft to remain a vital part of the Air Force’s deployed assets.
“The systems are operating very well overseas and at better success rates than the U-2,” Walby said. “I don’t think the theaters are going to give them up.”
He touted high percentages in “mission capable rates,” which is the amount of time the aircraft is not grounded for repairs. He also hinted at new sensors being developed that the company won’t yet openly discuss.
One thing is certain about the future — a remotely piloted plane will one day handle the U-2’s mission. This reality has been driven home by the Pentagon’s renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific region where potential adversaries have more advanced air defense systems than the opposition did in Iraq or Afghanistan. Flying a U-2 over China, for example, is a much more dangerous undertaking.
For now, at least, the Air Force’s plans don’t include the Global Hawk Block 30.
Rockwell put it bluntly: “Global Hawk has never come close to replacing U-2 capabilities despite a decade of hype,” he said. “So the simpler, lighter sensors will stay on the hundreds of Predators and Reapers already in service, and the high-end sensors will stay on the U-2.”