The Global Hawk was expected to reduce intelligence-collection costs while more than doubling sortie duration and eliminating risk to onboard pilots.
The program received a huge infusion of war funding after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Air Force pressed first demonstration vehicles and later production variants into service over Iraq and Afghanistan (AW&ST March 12, 2007, p. 56). And the Global Hawk has collected data on nearly every hot spot on Earth—Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, Japan after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Egypt and neighboring countries during the 2011 Arab Spring and, most recently, Mali, program officials say.
It would be a gross oversimplification to blame Pentagon belt-tightening for the Global Hawk Block 40's potential termination. The billions that rushed Block 30 and 40 into the field have been both a blessing and a curse. The Air Force accepted the money, giving the program a chance to cut its teeth in operations, but with the funds came unrealistic expectations. Requirements have been adjusted to include a larger platform and new payloads. The program's contracting vehicles were complex, trying to keep up with U.S. Central Command's (Centcom) urgent needs, and multiple variants were produced through a spiral development program.
According to one defense official, this resulted in the unmet expectation that the UAS could be everything to everyone, at lower cost than the U-2. Despite its performance in-theater, exploiting and disseminating the Global Hawk's intelligence was much more expensive than projected, and developmental cost overruns occurred in 2005 and 2011. Looking at the future force structure, Gen. Michael Hostage, Air Combat Command chief, says, “I'd rather have Global Hawk, but I can't afford it. [It is] a lot more expensive than we are being told.”
While budget cuts alone would not ground the Global Hawk, they are a catalyst, forcing the Air Force to make a choice. Recent years of fiscal scrutiny have exposed a key shortcoming of the Global Hawk program: it could not earn its way into the Air Force arsenal by outperforming the U-2, even though the UAS's advocates say the early designs were never required to do so.
Global Hawk supporters say constantly shifting requirements kept the platform from reaching that fiscal goal. U-2 supporters counter that the UAS was poorly planned—the decision not to choose a more powerful engine to expand the Block 30's payload capacity was a fatal move, says one official.
If the Block 40 is terminated, it would be pulled from service only months after its first planned deployment to Centcom supporting soldiers in Afghanistan, a program official says. This would stunt the Block 40 before it could prove itself on the battlefield.
Forced to carry on business as usual until a final decision is made, the Global Hawk program office is continuing with plans to conduct an operational utility evaluation (OUE) of the system in advance of this possible deployment. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter approved the OUE last April to assess whether the aircraft and its sensor could “deliver limited, but high-demand capability to warfighters in Centcom this spring,” say Air Force program officials at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
The evaluation will include two aircraft, each fitted with the active, electronically scanned array radar; between the two, they must perform four long-duration sorties. Among the issues to be reviewed will be the ability of the service's pilots, sensor operators and maintainers to generate sorties and “fly missions in an operational environment.” Air Force officials say that “at this point, the system has demonstrated its ability to meet the [early operational capability] mission and no delays are expected to the deployment.”