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Global Hawks Planned to Replace U-2 in 2015

If all goes as planned, the Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) will replace the legendary U-2 “Dragon Lady” as the nation’s premier strategic reconnaissance platform. It was supposed to happen earlier. Officials now say it will happen in 2015.

At that crucial moment of transition, a remote operator in a ground control station (GCS) will replace the person in the cockpit. Both are called pilots, but their duties are worlds apart. A “stick and rudder guy” – to use one U-2 pilot’s words – will give way to a ground-based controller of the Nintendo generation.

It’s the revolution some U.S. military figures have been predicting for years.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can produce “resource efficiencies” and “improve the delivery of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR] information to America’s joint warriors on the ground, at sea, and in the air,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who was recently the U.S. Air Force’s top intelligence officer.

Skeptics wonder whether the United States may have gone overboard in its love affair with the UAV. They caution against seeing aircraft like Global Hawk as a cure-all.

Even if robot aircraft really are an innovative new idea whose time has come, not all RPAs are equal. Global Hawk faces challenges that are unique to this particular platform.

The Global Hawk, properly known in its latest U.S. Air Force production version as the RQ-4B Block 40, has been in and out of favor in Washington. The cost of the RPA (the preferred Air Force term for what other services call a UAV) has doubled since 2001 and the USAF has cut its planned purchase from 77 aircraft to 55. According to Christopher Drew in the New York Times, the estimated cost for each Global Hawk now is $218 million, or double the once-projected sticker price. That compares with $28 million for the MQ-9 Reaper, the largest armed RPA.


Global Hawk on Duty

The nine RQ-4B Block 20 Global Hawks that have been operating in Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere carry an impressive package of ISR sensors. The remotely controlled aircraft can fly for 24 hours and spot an enemy vehicle 100 miles away.

The latest Global Hawk, the Block 40, in flight

A Northrop Grumman Block 40 Global Hawk in flight. While there is no question about the Global Hawk’s overall capabilities, the sensor package necessary to perform all the missions of the manned U-2 has not yet been perfected. Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman

No one doubts that the revolution is real and that an aviator in a cockpit will no longer be needed for strategic reconnaissance once a remotely piloted platform is ready. However, longstanding plans to replace the U-2 with the RQ-4B Block 40, an advanced version of Global Hawk, have been postponed twice already. The delays involve some practical considerations unique to the U-2 and RQ-4B airframes and unrelated to the larger question of whether a reconnaissance vehicle should be manned or unmanned.

In January 2006, the Air Force announced plans to retire its 33 U-2s (28 single-seat U-2S and five two-seat U-2ST models). Air Force leaders at the time said they had to get rid of aging airframes in order to recapitalize the force.


Venerable, Legendary U-2

The U-2 made its first flight on Aug. 1, 1955. The May 1, 1960 shootdown of pilot Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 heightened Cold War tensions between U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The Air Force lost a hero during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when U-2 pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson was shot down over Cuba while gathering intelligence for President John F. Kennedy’s administration.

Today’s second-generation U-2s are about 40 percent larger than the original and were manufactured between 1967 and 1985. They’ve been repeatedly improved. An ambitious program to re-equip the fleet with F118-GE-101 turbofan engines was a success story in 1998 – giving the U-2 more power, better fuel economy, and greater endurance.  A subsequent program gave today’s U-2s a new cockpit display and controls in 2002.

The airframe and the cockpit harken back to an earlier era. “We’re one of the few jet units that still function in the ‘old’ aviator style,” said U-2 Lt. Col. Kevin M. Henry. “We’re a close knit organization, flying a real stick and rudder airplane, counting on each other (since we’re all deployed for 200 plus days a year), and do all those crazy type missions alone, unarmed, unafraid – missions you can only admit to and talk about with each other.”


The Things It Carries

The payload of the U-2 is another matter. It is “state of the art,” Henry said. And it includes items that the Global Hawk is so far not configured to carry.

To perform all of the same missions as the U-2, the Global Hawk will need to carry that aircraft’s Optical Bar Camera, which is an extremely high resolution wet film camera. The Air Force has spent years exploring ways to mount the massive camera onto the Global Hawk airframe, but says substantial modifications will still be required to make it happen. The camera is one of the reasons the Global Hawk didn’t replace the U-2 as early as 2009, which was once the intended schedule.

Officials have said little in public about whether the RQ-4B is being configured for the camera. They’re saying even less about some U-2 sensors, including signals monitoring devices, which apparently can be carried by both aircraft but aren’t discussed in public.

Proponents of the Global Hawk are optimistic if not terribly explicit about specific payload packages. “Since 2001, Global Hawk has provided critical resources to the warfighter, while accumulating more than 45,000 combat and humanitarian relief hours,” said George Guerra of planemaker Northrop Grumman. On Aug. 3, the company announced that an improved version of its radar sensor had passed another level of tests aboard a production-standard RQ-4B Block 40 at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

One of the RQ-4B’s most important sensors is up and running. The Block 40 Global Hawks are equipped with the Northrop Grumman AN/ZPY-2 Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) sensor, built with teammate Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems in El Segundo, Calif. The MP-RTIP is the first radar sensor to concurrently use synthetic aperture radar imaging while tracking moving targets simultaneously over large areas. Eight Block 40s will eventually operate from Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., where an arrival ceremony was held for an interim Block 20 version that landed on May 26 following a flight from Beale Air Force Base, Calif.

Beale is, of course, home to the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing and to the U-2. Global Hawks also operate at Beale, but not as U-2 replacements – yet.

The time is coming. There will be “no U-2s in the Air Force in fiscal year  ’15,” said Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, the Air Force’s Global Hawk functional manager, in a talk to reporters at the National Press Club on Aug. 10. And the camera?  “We’re looking at a cooperative effort with industry to look at a universal mount,” Thomas said.

Some in Congress want to keep the U-2. They’ve proposed legislation to require the Defense Department to certify that sustainment costs for the Global Hawk are less than the U-2’s before the Air Force is allowed to retire the U-2.

The revolution is coming, and possibly in 2015, but no one can be certain of the date as yet.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...