Remotely piloted planes are the future. Air Force officials have acknowledged this over recent years in their planning and budgeting. Today, more airmen train to fly drones than bombers and fighter jets.
But at least one part of that transition from manned to unmanned aviation is on hold.
Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk has been touted as the successor to the decades-old U-2 Dragon Lady, which pilots fly to the edge of space to look far and wide for intelligence. But officials announced in January that they planned to terminate the Global Hawk Block 30 program by relegating to storage 18 of the unmanned surveillance aircraft worth more than $1 billion.
The U-2 can still do a better job for less money, officials said.
The move would save the Air Force $815 million in fiscal year 2013 and $2.5 billion in the long run, they said.
The decision has led members of Congress to question the Air Force's rationale and has left Northrop Grumman fighting to save one of its flagship products.
Some of the debate has to do with the numbers of U-2s readily available, some of it has to do with cost overruns in the Global Hawk program and some of it comes down to sensors. Those carried by the U-2 outperform those on the drone, officials said.
Much of that assessment is based on each of the aircraft's ability to collect imagery. The Global Hawk carries Raytheon's Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite, which includes cloud-penetrating radar, a highresolution electro-optical digital camera and an infrared sensor. But the U-2's radar can see farther partly because the plane can fly at altitudes over 70,000 feet, about 10,000 feet higher than a Global Hawk. A longer focal length also gives the U-2's camera an edge, experts said.
The Pentagon declined a request for an interview saying that a discussion of the sensors in question would delve into classified information. However, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz has said that the drone's sensors just weren't cutting it. Further, the U-2 can carry a larger payload, up to 5,000 pounds compared to 3,000 pounds for the Global Hawk.
"Some of the most useful sensors are simply too big for Global Hawk," said Dave Rockwell, senior electronics analyst at Teal Group Corp. He referred to an optical bar camera on the U-2 that uses wet film similar to an old-fashioned Kodak. "It's too big to fit on Global Hawk even as a single sensor."
That's not so, said Ed Walby, Northrop Grumman business development director for high-altitude long-endurance systems.
"Anyone who says that hasn't looked at the drawings or done the engineering," he said. "We can put anything you want on the Global Hawk."
AIR FORCE'S U-2 Dragon Global Hawk Avenger UAV OPTIONS Lady UAV COST 7 Classified $65.8 million $15 million PAYLOAD 5,000 pounds 3,000 pounds 6,500 pounds SPEED 475 mph 357 mph 460...