UAS & Robotics

Air Force plans to spend $4B on Global Hawk drone program

Global Hawk UAV

The Air Force is planning to spend up to $4 billion over the next five years on the Global Hawk unmanned aerial system program, which until just last year it wanted to send to the scrap heap.

According to a Justification and Approval document posted on the FedBizOps website, the service expects to spend a maximum of $4.018 million from fiscal 2016 to 2020 on “development, modernization, retrofit, and sustainment activities” for all of its Global Hawk variants.

Made by Northrop Grumman, Global Hawk is the Air Force’s long-range, high-altitude ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) aircraft. It can fly for up to 32 hours at altitudes as high as 60,000 feet, with a range of 12,300 nautical miles, providing imaging and signals intelligence, as well as communications support, to troops around the world.

Despite its effectiveness, the Air Force for years had wanted to cancel the Global Hawk in favor of the manned U-2 spy plane, a.k.a. the Dragon Lady, which dates to the Cold War but had cost less to operate. Congress, however, held firm in its support for the Global Hawk and in early 2014, when submitting its fiscal 2015 budget request, the Air Force agreed. The service noted that the per-hour cost of flying the Global Hawk had finally dropped below that of the U2—about $24,000 to $32,000—and so opted to continue with the UAS and retire the U-2.

Following that decision, the Air Force in August 2014 gave Northrop a $240.6 million contract modification for three additional Block 30 RQ-4B Global Hawks, each with each with an Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite and an Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload. The contract also called for two extra ASIP sensors for retrofitting, which brought the total value of the deal to $355 million.

Earlier this month the Block 30 aircraft achieved Milestone C approval from the Air Force.

The forthcoming contracts for the Global Hawk will be awarded sole-source to Northrop, which the Air Force said was “uniquely qualified” to provide what it described as a “highly specialized” system. Qualifying another vendor to be the prime contractor for Global Hawk would take about four years and between $300 million and $500 million, the Air Force said.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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