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Unmmaned Drones Slated To Replace U-2

Pamela Hess / UPI | April 19 2006

The unmanned aerial vehicle that is supposed to replace the U-2 spy plane when it is retired next year is over budget and behind schedule, and the acquisition program is being restructured for the fourth time, according to government documents.

The Pentagon reported to Congress earlier this month that the Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk UAV is more than 25 percent over budget. The Government Accountability Office reported in March that the program has experienced 166 percent cost growth over the projected costs in 2001. The Defense Department has spent more than $6 billion on the program since its inception a decade ago.

The effect of the cost growth and the delays is that the program has run afoul of the Nunn-McCurdy Act, which is meant to warn Congress when acquisition costs on individual programs climb more than 15 percent. The Office of the Secretary of Defense must now certify that Global Hawk is necessary to national security, that costs are now under control -- the reason for the restructuring -- and that no alternatives exist that can provide equal or greater military capability at less cost.

That certification will be complete by June 5, according to Air Force spokesman Doug Karas.

The case will be a hard to make to proponents of the U-2 "Dragon Lady" spy plane, which the Air Force has decided to retire between 2007 and 2011, in part to free up money to fund the Global Hawk program. Retiring the U-2 by 2011 will save the Air Force about $1 billion and 3,300 personnel slots in operating costs, according to Defense Department budget documents.

However, the U-2 fleet is capable of flying until 2050, due to engine and cockpit upgrades over the last 10 years, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The Global Hawk cost overruns and development program restructuring come at a bad time for the UAV program and for the Pentagon, as Congress is now marking up the fiscal year 2007 budget, and may prohibit retirement of the U-2 until Global Hawk's problems are behind it.

The U-2 and the Global Hawk have long been in competition for scarce intelligence and reconnaissance funding. Five years ago, then-Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters suggested the termination of the U-2 program in 2011 to free up funding to boost production of the nascent Global Hawk. That and other attempts to retire the U-2 have been rebuffed by Congress, which is now deliberating whether to allow the Pentagon to retire the U-2.

Model Global Hawks have already been in the fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, flying more than 5,400 combat hours over the last four years. Two Global Hawks are at work on continuous intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance missions over the Middle East.

The Global Hawk will replace U-2s in three places -- Korea, Cyprus and the Middle East.

The Global Hawk began life in the mid 1990s as an advanced concept technology demonstration project, with the goal of a $10 million per aircraft fly away cost. Since it was transitioned into a traditional program in 2001, that cost has grown to $43 million for the aircraft and sensors on the smaller RQ-4A version. Northrop Grumman is working on a larger aircraft with more power and capability. That aircraft, the RQ-4B, will cost $56 million, according to company estimates. The B is scheduled to debut in November 2006 at the earliest.

The unmanned Global Hawk can fly twice as far as the U-2 and remain on station for three times as long. However, the U-2 can carry twice the payload of the Global Hawk "A" model. The U-2's superior electrical power increases some of the capabilities of its onboard sensors. The next generation of the Global Hawk -- the B model -- is slated to boost its payload weight and an electrical generator to roughly match the U-2, according to information provided by prime contractor Northrop Grumman.

However, according to Air Force charts obtained by United Press International, the Global Hawk will fall short of the U-2 in key areas for several years. It will not be able to match the U-2's synthetic aperture radar, electro-optical and infrared capabilities at least through 2012. When the "B" model is introduced -- and if it works as advertised -- it will largely close those gaps, according to Air Force and company officials.

The U-2 has at least one capability the Global Hawk is not planned to match -- that of broad area synoptic coverage, according to Air Force charts.

BAS is a static photograph taken of an enormous area, the dimensions of which are classified. Such imagery is used both for treaty verification and also in preparation for battles; a single shot can show how an entire enemy force is arrayed on the battlefield. Follow up shots then can track movements.

The U-2s BAS was used to chart the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, according to a program source.

Satellites do not provide those broad pictures, but rather create less accurate "mosaics" through smaller area pictures taken over a longer time period, after which they are then pieced together by intelligence analysts.

 

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