February 25, 2013
Credit: Northrop Grumman
Amy Butler Washington
The Global Hawk was once the U.S. Air Force's procurement darling, a premier unmanned air system primed to take over or augment key intelligence-collecting missions for the service. Now, however, after more than 10 years of addressing urgent needs in recent wars, service leaders may terminate the Northrop Grumman aircraft.
Top Air Force officials have quietly agreed that the Block 40 version of the UAS could be offered up as a bill-payer in the forthcoming fiscal 2014 budget, according to multiple defense officials.
A kill of the Block 40, which has yet to see operational use, would be the latest blow to the service's relationship with Northrop Grumman. The pair struggled for years—sometimes with Air Force officials publicly admonishing the company—to fund, develop and test the highly ambitious and high-flying UAS. Its cancellation must be approved by Air Force leaders, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and, eventually, Congress.
The Block 40 review comes only a year after the service proposed prematurely shelving the new Block 30 Global Hawks; that plan is still on hold as Congress has directed that they continue operating through the end of next year.
The 2014 budget request will not likely reach Congress until next month, so there is time for Northrop to intensify its already aggressive lobbying campaign to save the Block 30 and—now—its cousin (AW&ST Feb. 6, 2012, p. 34). The former was designed to collect electro-optical and infrared images as well as signals intelligence, while the latter is outfitted with the 1.5 X 4-ft. Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) sensor designed to track moving ground targets and relay data about them to soldiers.
The Air Force and Northrop Grumman have both declined to discuss the decision, saying it is premature to address the 2014 budget plan.
Together, the two variants were linchpins of a potential transformation in the Air Force high-altitude intelligence-collection mission, which since the 1950s has been handled by pilots flying the temperamental U-2.