Global Hawk Trails U-2 Despite Retirement Plans

Global Hawk Trails U-2 Despite Retirement Plans

The proposed drone replacement for the U-2 spy plane is still years away from being as effective and only then with key sensors and cameras cannibalized from the U-2, top Air Force officials said Wednesday.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday the Pentagon and Air Force plan to start retiring the U-2 fleet in 2015 and hand the reconnaissance mission off to the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone.

When asked why the Air Force couldn’t get new cameras for the Global Hawk Block 30 drones, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Spencer said “it would be cost prohibitive.”


Spencer did not give cost estimates but said the solution was to “unbolt the sensor on the U-2 and bolt it onto the Block 30.”

Spencer and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James both said the U-2 was better at high-altitude reconnaissance missions than the Global Hawk. In Spencer’s estimation, the U-2 Dragon Lady was “far superior.”

On the Global Hawks, “the sensors at the moment are not quite as good so we’ll be working on that,” James said. “That will take a few years,” Spencer said.

James and Spencer also said the Global Hawks needed improvements in their ability to cope with bad weather to match the all-weather capabilities of the U-2s.

The proposal to retire the U-2s in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget plan unveiled by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday was already expected to get major pushback from Congress, and  the need for upgrades to the Global Hawks outlined by James and Spencer could possibly add up to a new lease on life for the U-2s.

The Air Force does not dispute the legendary track record of the U-2s, which first started flying in 1955. U-2s went on countless spy missions over the Soviet Union, China and North Vietnam, and in 1962 it was a U-2 that first produced evidence that the Soviets were preparing sites to install nuclear missiles in Cuba.

More recently, U-2s have spotted soil disturbances in Afghanistan suggesting the presence of roadside bombs. In Syria, U-2s tracked the chemical weapons activities of the Damascus regime.

The Air Force tried to kill the U-2s two years ago, but decided that sticking with the U-2s over the Global Hawks was cheaper.

“Two years ago, the U-2 was the least costly,” Spencer said, “but now the Global Hawk is the least expensive of those two systems” after the program was reworked by Northrop Grumman.

The proposals to retire the U-2s and the A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft were two of the most controversial initiatives in the Air Force’ submission to the overall budget plan.

James said that the A-10, better known as the “Warthog,” was a “great plane,” but ground troops were dependent “on whatever plane can get there first” in a crisis. She said that more than 80 percent of the close air support missions in Afghanistan were not flown by A-10s but by AC-130 gunships and by F-15E Strike Eagle fighters, B-1 bombers and B-52 bombers using satellite-guided munitions.

“We love the airplane but we simply can’t afford it,” James said of the A-10. James and Spencer spoke at an all-day forum on defense issues sponsored by Bloomberg Government.

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“Two years ago, the U-2 was the least costly,” Spencer said, “but now the Global Hawk is the least expensive of those two systems” after the program was reworked by Northrop Grumman.

Translation: Global Hawk suddenly became less costly once Northrop Grumman realized they were going to lose some business, so they stopped gouging the Air Force for excess profits. However, I wonder which one will be the most expensive once those high tech cameras and other payload items are “bolted on” and integrated into the RQ-4, and it’s given all-weather capabilities?

“The proposed drone replacement for the U-2 spy plane is still years away from being as effective and only then with key sensors and cameras cannibalized from the U-2, top Air Force officials said Wednesday.”

…I’m surprised they don’t just move the hardware instead of reinventing lower quality equipment for the cost-plus contract.

That explains a lot.

While US Air Force does not seem to be interested in operating the U-2 as a manned platform. And regardless how inexpensive it may be for others to do so, US Air Force would likely find it cost prohibitive to convert the U-2 fleet to UAVs and to continue maintain them, with numbers massaged to justify decisions already made.

India, Israel, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and others might be interested in acquiring the U-2, and might also be interested in pursuing UAV conversions.

The fleet of A-10 should be transferred to the Army.

Obsolete agreements related to old interservice rivalries can be over-ruled.

As to retirement plans… Air Force needs to retire some general officers as much or more than they need to retire aircraft. Unlike the Air Force generals, the aircraft can be put to work. And thinning the herd of generals also thins the herd of staff and the perks that come with the stars. Cut 1/3 of the general officer billets, and downgrade 1/3 of the billets by one rank. Cut once, deep and soon, leaving some opportunity for advancement of those who remain.

Let’s see.…the RQ-4 falls short of the U-2 in the following ways: weaker engine so smaller flight envelope; sub-par sensors; the weak engine means a lower operating altitude which, in turn, equals less sensor range; less space for additional payloads; even if there was space for those payloads, the engine doesn’t have the guts to haul them *and* there’s not enough generator power to run them; and more restrictive weather limits to operate.

Yep, that’s a no brainer. This just logically screams to continue to fund at the expense of the far better platform in sensors and airframe performance.

Almost makes me wonder just how much of a kick-back are the SECDEF’s folks getting from the defense contractors for this one.…..

“Two years ago, the U-2 was the least costly,” Spencer said, “but now the Global Hawk is the least expensive of those two systems” after the program was reworked by Northrop Grumman.
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We could probably save billions by ordering all defense contractors to rework their programs to reduce costs or risk defunding.

Necessity is the mother of invention — and no one will change anything unless they have something to lose.

No mystery there — once the U-2 is gone the global hawk price will skyrocket.

There goes the U.S. military making stupid decisions like the rest of our government.

What isn’t mentioned in making this decision, is that the U-2 has a potential hostage flying it, while Global Hawk has only a computer. Remember what happened to the Cold War world in crisis when Gary Powers and his U-2 were shot down in 1960 …

You are only correct on 2 things: the RQ-4 can’t go as high and has weather restrictions currently (models exist without them). The less powerful engine isn’t too weak to get higher, it simply was not designed to go higher as it serves no purpose since the unmanned aircraft can get closer without having to worry about threats. Customers want good images and far does not translate to good, even with the best sensors. Closer does. The U-2 flew high to avoid threats and detection, not take the best pictures. As far as payload goes, according to open sources the RQ-4 has 3 permanent payloads and the capability to integrate more given it doesn’t mess up the center of gravity (that is the real issue, not thrust, and the U-2 suffers from it as well).

The generator issue was resolved years ago when they moved onto the B model. The plane is capable of operating every sensor on board at the same time with power to spare. The RQ-4 can get things just as well as the U-2, outside of wet film, but do it 2–3 times longer on any given day with a range that far exceeds anything the U-2 could ever be capable of because of pilot duty day limitations. Is the RQ-4 perfect? Nope, and far from it. But it will get the job done just fine for now with a lower risk than pressurizing a human to 15000–29000 feet and sending them into contested airspace.

Don’t just make things up.

What did I miss? Didn’t the USAF dump the Global Hawk because they were very unhappy with it? And didn’t the USN take them off their hands?

What he said about the A-10 is a bunch of carp. keep reading on how A-10s save troops live I bet after bucking his political masters at the Pentagon over the U-2. He had to suck up to them over the other planes plan. Over I agree a drone cannot do what a manned plane can do nor can it adjust to changing situations like a manned planes can.

Overall I doubt the A-10 or the U-2 will go anywhere Congress kill shoot Heagle’s plan down in flames thankfully. This Sec Of Defense has no clue to reality and is taking points from his boss to just gut the military..

Sounds good, but how is the Army going to pay for it?

The U-2 is an incredibly expensive airplane to operate and the human pilot is equally expensive– drones do best with “dull, dirty, dangerous”. Consider flying a U2 through a NK nuclear test, consider a steady state surveillance of the Indian Ocean for poachers and smugglers, consider running a U2 through a hurricane eye– the U2 may have a role but most long term surveillance actions have to be done by a robot.

You can only do so much when the payload is so much lower.

None of which can be accomplished by the RQ-4

Correction. The military tries to make decisions for the military, and sometimes gets overruled by idiots in Congress who are pandering to lobbyists. Block 30 was a prime example of this.

A U-2 would not have been run through the eye, but rather over the eye. However, the RQ-4 has done that mission for NASA. Per a NASA Goddard article:

Measuring a Hurricane’s Heavy Rain and Strong Winds

HS3’s over-storm Global Hawk, which focuses on measurements of storm internal structure, carried the Hurricane Imaging Radiometer or HIRAD, the High-altitude Imaging Wind and Rain Airborne Profiler or HIWRAP, and the High-Altitude Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuits Sounding Radiometer or HAMSR, on a flight over Hurricane Ingrid on Sept. 15 as the storm moved through the extreme southwestern Gulf of Mexico and traveled west-northwestward along Mexico’s east coast. HIRAD identified an area of heavy rain and likely strong winds on Hurricane Ingrid’s eastern side by measuring energy coming from the rough ocean surface caused by the rain and strong winds.

“HIRAD data definitely saw most of the strong wind and heavy rain on the northern and eastern sides of Hurricane Ingrid in the area generally near 23 degrees north latitude and 95 degrees west longitude,” said Daniel J. Cecil, the principal investigator for the HIRAD instrument at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Not quite. The Block 30 was the point of contention with the AF senior leadership. The Navy got 1 or 2 of the Block 10 models to do some work for their BAMS implementation (variation of the Global Hawk for the Navy). Unfortunately, they managed to crash it (Pax River?).

Hey, many thanks for the clarification! Didn’t realize at all the transfer to USN was such a small number, and it was block numbers rather than the whole class. Appreciate it!

Your analysis is pure bunk. Utter nonsense. But have a nice day.

U-2 doesn’t fly very high like you state. I have talked to a lot of people working with the pressure suits and they say they fly mainly around 60,000–70,000, they are normally to heavy to go much higher. I think about the highest they can go is about 80,000. In terms of the pressurization of the pilot above 66,000 ft it doesn’t matter, engines don’t work very well or all at really high altitudes.

Hey Global Hawk: what good is all weather capability if your sensors can’t see the ground?

Global Hawk has ears as well as eyes.

Conversion of an old airplane like a U2 to Unmanned would be a major undertaking because the design is so old. A modern aircraft where the control systems are electronic/computer aided are much more amenable to conversion because once a system is electronically controlled, the source of the control signals can be changed. This is not true for older systems as each system on the airplane would need to be converted to electronic/computer controlled.

So does U-2, and its eyes are 20/20.

Re-working the programs has happened consistently over the past 7 years.…for both programs U2 and GH. There have been many efficiencies gained on both programs.….the problem is the GH was never designed to do what the U2 does and vice versa.….

GH can match any resolution the U2 provides just at a different altitude.….

Some of those threats that the U2 can fly above is weather.….knowing the cancelation rate of GH flights due to weather puts this in perspective.….Bottom line is both fleets are needed for different collection environments.…

So besides Gary Powers what other hostages have there been due to a U-2 being downed? The bird that Powers was in is not the same U-2 that is flown today.….the birds flown today were manufactured in the late 80’s and have been fitted with far better technology than what powers had.….

Not to mention the brain in the cock pit always makes better decisions then the brain holding the remote control.….How many GHs have been downed since the program started? Too Many!

If your numbers are correct i would say that 80,000 feet is really high!

The U2– does not fly ito contested Air Space.…that is the point of its altitude and stand off capability.

Lower altitude means it’s visual footprint is much smaller. 1500lb GH vs. 5000lb U2 payload means the Hawk simply doesn’t have the ablitiy to carry as many sensors. The lack of deicing equipment on the GH also means it simply can’t take off much of the time. For the unititiated, this is a problem even for planes that fly in the tropics, as temperatures drop quickly during the climb to altitude.

UAV’s have the highest crash/failure rate out of all the aircraft in all the armed forces. And countries like Iran have hacked our drones, N Korea has disrupted GPS guidance, and who knows to what extent China has already gone. I would gladly provide a flying hostage if it meant getting the job done right. That’s the price of warfare my friend.

Actually a lot of fighter aircraft can zoom up to 100,000, records were set at the time of the cuban missile crisis by F-102/106 type aircraft, but they aren’t flying just on a ballistic trajectory. Reading about the time before the cuban missile crisis it seems the U-2’s were flying in the 80’s but what I have heard is now they are so heavy with all the sensors that they have trouble getting much above 60K.

MOST of the U-2s made today were made in the 80s (they started rolling off the assembly in 1980 with the last in 1988(9?). However, there is some made in 1960s still flown. However that is a slight moot point as all of them were overhauled in the mid 90s with a new engine and other stuff.

“Unforseen corrosion in RQ-4’s raise specter of costly rework, officials say”

Or something like it, in a few years, or months even.

“UAV’s have the highest crash/failure rate out of all the aircraft in all the armed forces.”

This is only true because we start flying UAVs in real ops far earlier in their program life than we would dare with manned aircraft. If you look at the “mishap rate vs. cumulative flying hours” graphs for U-2 and Global Hawk, they are almost identical.

Triton, the Navy version used in their BAMS program, is highly-modified from any of the AF block variants. The AF has Block 10 (retired), Block 20 (no longer in production), Block 30 (EO/IR, SAR, and SIGINT), and Block 40 (MP-RTIP radar payload, now cancelled).

The Block 30 carries a combined EO/IR sensor, a synthetic aperture radar, and a SIGINT package, and can use them all simultaneously.

Again. Appreciate the “schooling” very much. Goes well beyond the blogs and news sources I stalk…

The only thing the Global hawk does better than a U-2 is it can stay aloft longer. GH can spend untold hours collecting inferior imagery that does not meet the requirements of the users, but that does not get the mission done. The GH does not have the power or the low noise floor to effectively use its signals collection gear while the U-2 does this mission with amazing clarity. The current U-2 fleet was built 25 years ago and can easily go another 25, as it has been continuously modernized over the years. It will cost Billions to fix the GH and bring it up to the capability of the current U-2, if it can even be done. It would be smarter to spend that money making the U-2 even more capable, rather than trying to upgrade a bad product to a capability the AF already owns.

I don’t understand how they’ve managed to screw up the camera systems on the Global Hawk so badly. They probably should have recycled the U-2’s sensors for use on the Global Hawk from the start.

As for the U-2, the problem I see with modernizing the aircraft again is that it still wouldn’t be survivable in a hostile environment where the enemy has large SAMs. We’ve known that since 1960. The Global Hawk may not be any more survivable, but at least there is no pilot.

I just think the AH64 or AC 130 Gunship replaces the A10 without any problems

We know the U-2s flying today were built in the late 1980s not the 1950s. Newer than a lot of fighters F18, F15, F16. How do we save money when the Global Hawk cannot do the job and we have a plane that does? How is it that Northrop, in a year, can suddenly fly cheaper? Cooking the books maybe? It might get more flying hours out of the money, but what does it deliver to the commanders that are waiting for information? We can fly a Cessna cheaper, but it would be nice to actually get the data needed at the time. Maybe too much money has been spent on the Global Hawk and congress just can’t eat crow with the decisions they made in the past. What happens when we need the data the U-2 provides regularly and can’t get it, who or what country pays the price then?

David has correct info. When NG went to the larger/heavier B model RQ-4 and attached a larger generator, they didn’t upgrade the engine due to costs, so the airplane lost 5–7000 feet in max altitude. The B model can actually go higher than 60k (at the end of a mission) but you have to turn off most of the equipment so you stay within engine parameters… in other words, flying above 60k is useless.

Flying high is critical. If you want to get closer for better imagery, buy a Predator or walk up to the target with your cell-camera. Flying higher means you can look deeper across borders or have a broader view of the battlespace, horizon-to-horizon. It also helps avoid about 90% of the threats, both SAMs and Aircraft. The key is flying high AND getting good imagery… to do that you need to be able to carry the weight and have the space for a camera with a very long focal length — think telephoto lens vs a laptop eyeball camera.

Center of gravity is an issue for all aircraft, but bottom line is that U-2 and GH are both trucks… the U-2 has a larger bed (volume/space available), a stronger chassis (weight carrying), and 3x the thrust which enables 2x the generator size which in turn opens up more power for the stuff in the ‘truck bed’

True that GH can power all it’s on-board sensors simultaneously… but they are not the more capable U-2 sensors.

The U-2 cockpit is pressurized below 15,000 feet and issues of pilots getting the ‘bends’ have been eliminated… this was the most recent mod to the platform.

Bottom line: The U-2 has more capable sensors; all theaters have come on-line in recent debates stating so, but the GH is newer and has longer legs. Which one do you want watching over you if you were the guy in the foxhole?

The Global Hawk 5 year budget is $1B over U-2, and will need another $1.9B (yes those are Bs not Ms) to upgrade to something close to U-2 that DoD is calling ‘parity’. All U-2 upgrades are bought and paid for… so not sure how you think U-2 is “incredibly expensive”.

There is nothing the Hawk can do that U-2 can’t other than fly longer. Both aircraft have the same tolerance for turbulence, though the U-2 pilot feels it. Not sure exactly how NASA flew the mission, but I guarantee they stayed out of the heavy/severe turbulence.

Amen, Brother

You are innaccurate ISR guy “stop making things up”

Block 20s and 40s are still flying, operated out of Grand Forks ND

Not Optical Bar Camera, but that’s another story…

Spot on Brother… U-2 upgrades are complete, GH upgrades just beginning.

Oh, yes they can. In fact, they already have!! The RQ-4 can do much more than 32 hours in the air. You need 3!! U=2’s do that. The U2 is a fine plane but putting a man in it is like putting a horse to pull a car.

Spot on Flappjax! BTW, 1989 was the last one and there are still 4 of the 60s vintage remaining that you accurately stated have been completely overhauled. Most people today don’t realize that the U-2s built in the 80s used to be called TR-1s but dropped that designation so they could preserve the ‘U-2′ heritage. Now it’s being used against them… even SECDEF has said the aircraft was a “half-century” old. Unbelievable!

The sensors on GH have weight and power issues that cannot be easily solved by transferring U-2 sensors. The noise floor is even more difficult to fix. As for survivability, GH does not carry any EW and given the above issues probably never will, while the U-2 systems are very capable. U-2 sensors are designed for use at large standoff distances, so with carful mission planning and EW the survivability is better than you think. You’re correct about enemy SAMS being deadly, they are for everyone, and penetrating on first day of conflict is probably not a good idea for a U-2, but once the doors of an IAD are kicked in, the U-2 can get in there and do the job. 99% of what a U-2 does is not fighting a hot conflict anyway, its the boring day in and day out recce that is the real mission, and the mission the GH is trying to do but can’t.

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