The USAF's Massive $10 Billion Global Hawk UAV

Underground Newz

The Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk is an unmanned (UAV) surveillance aircraft. It was initially designed by Ryan Aeronautical (now part of Northrop Grumman), and known as Tier II+ during development. The Global Hawk performs a similar role as the Lockheed U-2. The RQ-4 provides a broad overview and systematic surveillance using high-resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and long-range electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors with long loiter times over target areas. It can survey as much as 40,000 square miles (100,000 km2) of terrain a day.

The Global Hawk is operated by the United States Air Force. It is used as a high-altitude platform covering the spectrum of intelligence collection capability to support forces in worldwide military operations. According to the United States Air Force, the superior surveillance capabilities of the aircraft allow more precise weapons targeting and better protection of friendly forces. Cost overruns led to the original plan to acquire 63 aircraft being cut to 45, and to a 2013 proposal to mothball the 21 Block 30 signals intelligence variants. Each aircraft was to cost US$60.9 million in 2001, but this had risen to $222.7 million per aircraft (including development costs) by 2013.[1] The U.S. Navy has developed the Global Hawk into the MQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance platform.

Following the September 11th attacks, the normal acquisition process was ditched almost immediately and early developmental Global Hawk models were employed in overseas contingency operations beginning in November 2001. Global Hawk ATCD prototypes were used in the War in Afghanistan and in the Iraq War. Since April 2010, they fly the Northern Route, from Beale AFB over Canada to South-East Asia and back, reducing flight time and improving maintenance. While their data-collection capabilities have been praised, the program lost three prototype aircraft to accidents, more than one quarter of the aircraft used in the wars. The crashes were reported to be due to "technical failures or poor maintenance", with a failure rate per hour flown over 100 times higher than the F-16 fighter. Northrop Grumman stated that it was unfair to compare the failure rates of a mature design to that of a prototype aircraft. In June 2012, a media report described the Global Hawk, the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reapers "... the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet." On 11 February 2010, the Global Hawks deployed in the Central Command AOR accrued 30,000 combat hours and 1,500 plus sorties.

As it sits now, it seems that the U-2 should remain as America's high-flying surveillance multi-tool of choice, and that the Global Hawk was a solution to a problem that never existed.

In regards to it replacing the U-2 fleet, there are multiple areas where the Global Hawk and the RQ-4 struggle in comparison to the 55-year-old Lockheed design. These include the following:
  • The U-2 can carry a payload of 5,000lbs, whereas the RQ-4B can carry 3,000lbs. Additionally, the U-2 has more internal space and bay options to configure different reconnaissance payloads. It also has about double the on-board power generating capability, which is key for operating multiple powerful sensors at the same time, and the Global Hawk's current power generation abilities may hamper the aircraft's future growth.
  • The USAF's Global Hawks cannot fly through bad weather. The aircraft lacks deicing and lightning protection equipment, as well as certain fortifications to its wing structure. Additionally, the pilots have no way to see a storm in front of the aircraft via on-board radar or optics. Seeing as the aircraft can fly over vast and remote distances on a single mission, this has hurt the Global Hawk's sortie rate, as missions where bad weather could be encountered have to be scrubbed. In places like the Pacific, encountering storms somewhere along the Global Hawk's long routes is more probable than not. This has plagued the RQ-4's mission success rate, which is 55%, compared to the U-2 at 96%.
  • The Global Hawk flies lower than the U-2, below 60,000 fleet, while the U-2 flies at well over 70,000 feet. This means that the U-2's sensors and line-of-sight data links have a better range via the jet's higher perch, which is pretty crucial seeing as the aircraft's mission is standoff surveillance. Additionally, the U-2 can fly over pretty much any inclement weather, while the Global Hawk cannot, which takes us back to the whole aforementioned "flying in bad weather" issue.
  • The U-2's camera system is better than the Global Hawk's. Apparently there have been some improvements to the system to try and reach some sort of parity, but from what I have heard, the U-2 still owns the image intelligence collection realm hands down over the Global hawk. Northrop Grumman offered to pull the U-2's SYERS II (Senior Year Electro-optic Reconnaissance System) cameras out of the U-2 fleet and install them on the Global Hawk for around $50M. The Air Force estimated it would cost closer to $900M for new SYERS II cameras to be fitted on the Global Hawk, which there is no budget for. Yet if the USAF took Northrop Grumman up on their $50M offer, it would means that the U-2s will have their optical capabilities cannibalized, in effect putting the aircraft out of its primary business.
  • The U-2s are paid for, and have received new cockpits, upgraded pressurization systems and sensors. The Global Hawk and its ground control and communications stations costs many tens of millions of dollars. In a time of fiscal austerity every billion counts, and seeing as the U-2 duplicates much of the RQ-4s job, and supposedly does it better, the fiscal case for keeping the U-2 in service is a compelling one. The Global Hawk and the U-2 are now within a few thousand dollars of each other when it comes to their per hour flight costs, but the RQ-4s long endurance and its ability to dispense with pilot training probably gives it a slight leg up in the cost per hour department.
  • The RQ-4 lacks the ability to operate in dense airspace without major preparations, unlike the U-2 which has a pilot on-board and can integrate with civilian traffic much easier regardless of its unique flying qualities. So called "sense and avoid" systems are in the works for unmanned aircraft, but they still remain in development, and probably will for some time. This also means that the U-2 can be more easily forward deployed for surveillance missions, while the Global Hawk often has to be stationed far away from its target and utilizes international airspace that does not have heavy restrictions on unmanned aircraft, to operate. This basing issue does negate some of the Global Hawk's long endurance in some cases and was the primary reason why Germany's order for the "Euro Hawk" was cancelled. The long distances that the Global Hawk has to travel to its target area and back due to commercial air traffic interoperability issues, also exacerbates the aircraft's inability to fly through bad weather and known icing conditions. For instance, the U-2 can run surveillance flights of North Korea out of South Korea, while the Global Hawk has to fly all the way from Guam for that same mission as South Korea, much like Europe, has strict rules on unmanned aircraft operating within its airspace. If it takes many hours to get on station and return to base, the Global Hawk's unique persistence edge over the U-2 quickly erodes.
  • When it comes to age, the Global Hawk clearly has the upper hand over the U-2 by decades, but that does not mean the U-2 is a rapidly aging platform that needs to be sent to the boneyard anytime soon. In a Defense News article, a representative from Lockheed was quoted as saying that the U-2 airframe life is set at a whopping 75,000 hours. Currently, the U-2 fleet has an average of around 14,000 hours on each airframe. In other words, keeping the U-2s around for another decade or two while unmanned technology continues to mature would not present a major durability issue, and the aircraft have never been more capable or more pilot friendly to fly than they are today.
  • The Global Hawk is semi-autonomous, meaning that it still requires occasional commands and cross checking with a team on the ground via a desktop type, "point to fly here" interface. Inside the Mission Control Element (MCE), crews can tell the aircraft where to go and what to do, as opposed to 'flying' the aircraft and employing its sensors manually. This systems relies on a Ku band satellite data link or a line of sight data link to operate. It is not clear what type of autonomous modes the RQ-4 has today, but if the system is operating as normal that same data link interface may help give away the Global Hawk's position, or if satellite systems are jammed or destroyed during a time of war, it could result in a mission fail for the Global Hawk. Once again, hopefully the Global Hawk can fly itself to its area of operations, collect its pre-planned data, put it into an on-board storage system and return without manual interface. If it cannot, than that is a major concern that the piloted U-2, and the 'customers' of the prized data it collects, simply do not have.
After talking at great lengths about the program with representatives from the Global Hawk team, I begin to see what the machine before me truly is: A $10 Billion scam to rip off taxpayers of their hard earned money. When modern schools, hospitals and roads are desperately needed our leaders are flushing $10 Billion down the toilet.

Related article: Obama Denied the Death Star, But He Still Spends Billions on Star Wars 

Is America at war with someone or did we defeat all of our enemies at the end of the Cold War and then the Global War on Terror or is their some Evil Empire out there still threatening our existence to justify this expense?

This is our children's future. Look at all of the worthless crap that they keep building. Because this ain't nothin', anyone know how much they've spent on Star Wars, that doesn't work!!

America's being robbed by the Republican and Democratic parties of trillions and trillions of dollars and no one does a damn thing. Except to vote in more of these crooked politicians.

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