January 20, 2014
Credit: USAF Airman First Class Bobby Cummings
My how times—and political winds—have changed for the beleaguered Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.
Less than two years after proposing termination and premature mothballing of the new Block 30 version—once eyed as a replacement for the venerable, high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft—the Pentagon leadership is toying with a complete reversal on its position as it works through options for the fiscal 2015 budget proposal.
In a resourcing management decision—the mechanism by which the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) responds to the services' annual spending plans—Pentagon budgeters gutted U-2 funding, shifting more than $3 billion into the Global Hawk Block 30 account. The decision is not yet final, and it remains to be seen whether the service will maintain its position from the fiscal 2013 budget. It favored halting Block 30 work and operations and focusing solely on the Lockheed Martin U-2 as the high-altitude, standoff intelligence collector for the next decade or more.
Officials in the OSD and the Air Force do not comment on funding decisions prior to their delivery to Congress. But there are a variety of reasons behind the possible reversal of course by the Pentagon's leadership. These include politics and a shift in the cost estimate to operate the fleet.
The outcome of this debate could be a bellwether for other such squabbles down the road as the Pentagon proposes fleet terminations—including the A-10, Kiowa and TH-67—in the wake of sequestration and other fiscal pressures. Will the Pentagon and the service capitulate to parochial pressure from Capitol Hill to save a politically popular program? Or will they go to bat for the savings plans they have devised in light of dramatically declining investment budgets? Defense planners argue that if each fleet cut is adjusted, overall savings will be eroded, leaving the Pentagon with a “hollow force” of many platforms that it cannot afford to fly and keep current.
At issue for the Global Hawk is a dive in the cost per flying hour (CPFH) for the aircraft. In earlier fiscal years, CPFH was near that of the U-2 at roughly $33,000 per hr. Fiscal 2013 numbers, recently in from the field, point to a CPFH closer to $25,000, according to a program source.
The notable decrease is due to a substantial spike in the number of hours flown, a shift partly related to the fielding of the first Block 40s outfitted with active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for ground surveillance, an Air Force official says. The official did not provide a total number for the year, but a larger number of hours allows fixed costs to be more diluted in the calculation. Though the Air Force has not publicly proposed terminating the Block 40 in budget plans, last year senior leaders were eyeing it for a kill. It was likely saved owing to the then open debate on the fate of Block 30.