The U-2 spy plane currently gives better early warning of a potential attack from North Korea than its proposed Global Hawk drone replacement, the commander of U.S. Forces-Korea said Tuesday.
“In my particular case, the U-2 provides a unique capability that the Global Hawk presently does not provide,” said Army Gen. Curtis M. “Mike” Scaparrotti.
The U-2 Dragon Lady was still the best platform to give “the warning I need on a short timeline” to defend against a potential North Korean attack into South Korea, Scaparrotti said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Without giving specifics, Scaparrotti said the surveillance capabilities of the RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned aerial vehicle needed improvement before it could match the performance of the U-2 over the Korean peninsula.
Scaparrotti’s testimony in response to questions from Sen. Angus King, I-Me., went against the budget proposals of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to retire the U-2s in favor of the Global Hawks.
While praising the U-2s, both Hagel and James have said the Air Force can no longer afford to fly the Global Hawk and the U-2, and have chosen to retire the U-2.
The testimony of a field commander such as Scaparrotti in support of the U-2s could bolster the arguments of those in Congress favoring “legacy” platforms over their proposed replacements. Hagel’s plan to retire the fleet of A-10 attack aircraft has also run into fierce opposition from Capitol Hill proponents of the “Warthog.”
The Pentagon’s argument for the Northrop Grumman built Global Hawk fleet comes down to costs. In previous years, the Global Hawk could not match the average cost per flying hour of the U-2 of about $32,000. The Global Hawks now cost about $24,000 per flying hour, according to the Air Force.
“Last year, we were going to keep the U-2s and retire or shrink-wrap the Global Hawks,” Pentagon Comptroller Bob Hale told Congress last month.
“The operating costs on the Global Hawk Block 30 have come down,” Hale said. “It was always a close call. Now it comes down in favor of the Global Hawk. We’ll keep them and gradually retire the U-2s.”
At a defense forum earlier this month, James and Gen. Larry Spencer, the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff, said that the U-2 was still “far superior” to the Global Hawk in the intelligence mission.
James and Spencer said that the Global Hawk was years away from being as effective as the U-2 and only then with sensors cannibalized from the U-2.
The solution was to “unbolt the sensor on the U-2 and bolt it onto the Block 30,” Spencer said.
On the Global Hawks, James said that “the sensors at the moment are not quite as good so we’ll be working on that.”
“That will take a few years,” Spencer said.