Counter-trend: Air Force shoots down high-tech UAV in favor of ancient U-2

DoD made decision, Congress added pressure, but Global Hawk killed its own chance at success

The Pentagon has confirmed plans to stop buying RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude observation drone in favor of the 50-year-old U-2 Dragon Lady spy plane, which sparked at least one nuclear crisis with the Soviet Union, gave its name to an Irish crypto-lyrical rock band and outlived the SR-71 Blackbird built to replace it.

The U-2 also carries a pilot, making it the first Air Force plane to defend its own mission against UAVs that don't risk the lives of pilots and which are usually less expensive to build, buy and operate than piloted planes.

The decision sounds bizarre because it is so rare an exception in a series of huge wins for drones, which now make up more than 30 percent of the aircraft the Air Force flies in war zones.

It sounds almost inevitable when you look at the difficulty both the Pentagon and Congress have had with cost overruns in Global Hawk's development budget, the high maintenance requirements that prevent it from flying as many missions as the U-2 because it's stuck in the hangar for far too long after each mission, and the difficulty in getting it to carry or operate sensors that may be ancient in design but also product the best-quality images available from an American spy plane.

Global Hawk blows its chance to be the next big thing in high-performance spy planes

Global Hawk is designed to have a huge advantage over theU-2 in that it can stay airborne for 24 hours at a time and fly in circles for hours over a target, taking detailed images in visual, radar, heat and other spectra to update crisis situations as they develop.

The Pentagon announced in August that it planned to retire the U-2 and replace it with the Global Hawk, but got hung up on requirements from Congress that it confirm and justify the cost of operating each aircraft and use those costs as part of its decision.

At the time the Air Force's Total Ownership Cost database – listed the U-2 as costing $31,000 per hour to operate compared to $35,000 per hour for the Global Hawk, according to Air Force Times.

The cost of operating UAVs is almost universally considered lower than that of operating planes with pilots. It is expensive to develop anything that can fly as high, as far and collect as detailed imagery as the U-2, however, meaning the Global Hawk can't help be more expensive than drones that operate at lower altitudes and lower resolutions, especially while the bugs are still being worked out.

“The Global Hawk is a very impressive product, but it is also a very expensive product,” according to a quote in the NYT from aviation analyst Richard L. Aboulafia. “Those U-2s were paid for a long time ago.”

The drone had serious problems carrying the same sensors as the U-2, specifically the Optical Bar Camera, an ultra-high-resolution camera carried in the belly of the U-2, which supplements the forward-looking ground-radar-imaging and visual cameras in the plane's nose.

Only Apple can make failing to support critical components sound like an advantage

The Optical Bar Camera carries rolls of film 10,500 feet long that can take more than 1600 photographs, each of which can cover an area two miles long by 32 wide with resolution high enough to pick up detail "as fine as the lines in parking lots," from 70,000 feet.

It is the only wet-film spy camera still in use by the Air Force and, so far, has resisted being effectively mounted on a Global Hawk.

High maintenance requirements and long down times between missions meant Global Hawks could deliver only about 40 percent of the intelligence demanded of them, according to Pentagon reports published last June.

The Hawk's electronic-eavesdropping systems don't pick up either the type or volume of data they should, including its spotty ability to spot radar installations and other sources of radiation that are typically difficult to miss, the report said.

Steadily increasing costs and unsatisfactory performance combined to take the shine off the Global Hawk in the view of lawmakers, just weeks before the Air Force announced it would replace the venerable U-2.

High cost, low performance, long downtime

That didn't go over well with Congress, especially considering that the drone was hampered by its own inadequate technology and "immature training, tactics, techniques and procedures" to keep it operating at full capacity and squeeze the best data out of its sensor systems, the Pentagon report said.

The Navy will continue buying its version of the Global Hawk, whose ability to stay in the air (once it gets in the air) for as long as 24 hours at a time is more useful over the vast Pacific than over more condensed land-bound targets, defense analysts said.

Pentagon reports estimated Global Hawks were able to bring back only about 40 percent of the information they needed to deliver when used "at low operational tempos," meaning when the drones were grounded for maintenance.

When operating at near-continuous operational tempos, the system provides less than half the required 55 percent Effective-Time-On-Station (ETOS) coverage over a 30-day period. Frequent failures of mission critical air vehicle components reduce takeoff reliability and increase mission abort rates, which reduces ETOS performance.

"Rapid depletion of available spare parts reduces air vehicle availability to support additional missions at near-continuous operational tempos. A Global Hawk CAP can consistently generate sorties at a lower operational tempo of up to three sorties per week, when sufficient spare parts are available. However, these individual sorties collectively produce only 42 percent of the “tasked” ISR coverage time due to poor takeoff reliability, maintenance ground aborts, and high air abort rates. Current and planned Air Force reliability improvement activities will improve system reliability. In the interim, operational commanders should anticipate low air vehicle mission capable rates, spare part shortages, and a heavy reliance on system contractor support to sustain operations when attempting to conduct operations at near-continuous operational tempos….

… "The RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 30 is not operationally suitable. " –RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 30 Operational Test and Evaluation Report, May 2011.

The inadequately explained crash of a Global Hawk in the Frontier territory of Pakistan near the Afghan border Aug. 20, 2011 didn't help the drone's reputation for reliability, predictability or stealth.

From a distance it does look as if the more-reliable, pilot-controlled U-2 simply outperformed the Global Hawk in both capability and operational cost, the truth appears to be that the Global Hawk shot down its own future by lolling around the hangar being repaired when it should have been out working.

It didn't help that, when it did get into the air, eyesight that was dimmer than it should be and an adamant refusal to effectively carry the big, heavy, ancient Optical Bar Camera, even if wet-film cameras should have been as obsolete as pilots who have to ride along with their aircraft to let either one do their jobs.

When budgets are being cut and patience is short, decision-makers (and, apparently, Congress) are simply not willing to wait years until new digital gadgetry reaches the quality level of old, heavy Cold War-era technology.

Faced with that dilemma, even knowing the incredibly successful history of low-altitude, lower-cost UAVs in the combat zone, even Congress will pick systems whose only real advantages are that they burn money more slowly than new systems and – this is so trite it's hard to even bring it up – they work.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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