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 despite retirement proposal.

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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Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.