My how times—and political winds—have changed for the beleaguered Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

Less than two years after proposing termination and premature mothballing of the new Block 30 version—once eyed as a replacement for the venerable, high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft—the Pentagon leadership is toying with a complete reversal on its position as it works through options for the fiscal 2015 budget proposal.

In a resourcing management decision—the mechanism by which the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) responds to the services' annual spending plans—Pentagon budgeters gutted U-2 funding, shifting more than $3 billion into the Global Hawk Block 30 account. The decision is not yet final, and it remains to be seen whether the service will maintain its position from the fiscal 2013 budget. It favored halting Block 30 work and operations and focusing solely on the Lockheed Martin U-2 as the high-altitude, standoff intelligence collector for the next decade or more.

Officials in the OSD and the Air Force do not comment on funding decisions prior to their delivery to Congress. But there are a variety of reasons behind the possible reversal of course by the Pentagon's leadership. These include politics and a shift in the cost estimate to operate the fleet.

The outcome of this debate could be a bellwether for other such squabbles down the road as the Pentagon proposes fleet terminations—including the A-10, Kiowa and TH-67—in the wake of sequestration and other fiscal pressures. Will the Pentagon and the service capitulate to parochial pressure from Capitol Hill to save a politically popular program? Or will they go to bat for the savings plans they have devised in light of dramatically declining investment budgets? Defense planners argue that if each fleet cut is adjusted, overall savings will be eroded, leaving the Pentagon with a “hollow force” of many platforms that it cannot afford to fly and keep current.

At issue for the Global Hawk is a dive in the cost per flying hour (CPFH) for the aircraft. In earlier fiscal years, CPFH was near that of the U-2 at roughly $33,000 per hr. Fiscal 2013 numbers, recently in from the field, point to a CPFH closer to $25,000, according to a program source.

The notable decrease is due to a substantial spike in the number of hours flown, a shift partly related to the fielding of the first Block 40s outfitted with active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for ground surveillance, an Air Force official says. The official did not provide a total number for the year, but a larger number of hours allows fixed costs to be more diluted in the calculation. Though the Air Force has not publicly proposed terminating the Block 40 in budget plans, last year senior leaders were eyeing it for a kill. It was likely saved owing to the then open debate on the fate of Block 30.

Even if this new CPFH holds true in coming years, one program official notes that for some regions—such as the Pacific—Global Hawk must fly more hours to have an equitable time on station as the U-2. While CPFH may be lower for the Global Hawk, the figure is not reflective of the total cost to gather the needed intelligence.

To give an example, the unmanned air system (UAS) would have to fly 54% more flight hours to collect intelligence on areas in North Korea, the Middle East and Iran.

Nor is CPFH reflective of mission success rates between the two platforms. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection is in high demand, and aircraft downtime is extremely worrisome for combatant commanders. In the Pacific, 55% of Global Hawk's missions were canceled in fiscal 2013; 96% of the U-2's missions were achieved. The U-2 was also scheduled for nearly three times as many missions. Global Hawk lacks anti-icing equipment and is not able to operate in severe weather. An upgrade to remedy the shortcoming is being developed by the Navy for its Triton Global Hawk variant, but it would cost money and time to field.

The program source argues that CPFH is not an accurate metric on which to make a decision. He notes that Global Hawks based in Guam have to transit for hours just to reach North Korea, whereas the U-2, based at Osan air base, South Korea, has a shorter commute.

Additionally, the service originally opted to terminate the aircraft because of the lackluster performance by its Raytheon Enhanced Integrated Sensor Suite—the camera used to collect visual, infrared, and radar images. Global Hawk also flies at a lower altitude—typically close to 50,000 ft.—making it more susceptible to some weather and offering less-than-optimal ranges for peering into an enemy's territory. The U-2, by contrast, operates above 60,000 ft., and has nearly twice as much onboard power at the ready for collecting radar images. Forthcoming fielding of the secret, stealthy RQ-180 UAS (also developed by Northrop Grumman) probably contributed to the Air Force's view that the Global Hawk is excessive (AW&ST Dec, 9, 2013, p. 20).

Northrop Grumman did not discuss the newest CPFH figures. “[We are] working closely with the Air Force to reduce Global Hawk costs and enhance the system's outstanding performance. Global Hawk costs per flight hour have gone down significantly since 2010 and continue to decline as the system increases its operational tempo,” says Rene Freeland, a company spokeswoman.

The cost argument could, ultimately, be a cover for OSD simply succumbing to pressure from Capitol Hill, according to some program officials. Lawmakers have gone to bat for the system repeatedly, and Northrop Grumman has aggressively lobbied to keep Global Hawk alive.