is focusing efforts to save the unmanned aircraft program on reversing the U.S. Air Force’s intent to retire its young fleet of multi-sensor RQ-4B Block 30s in favor of keeping in service the aircraft they were intended to replace, the Lockheed U-2.
The company has made an unsolicited, fixed-price proposal to reduce the Block 30’s operating cost and improve the range and resolution of its electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) imaging sensor in a bid to keep the aircraft in service beyond the end of fiscal 2014.
“We understand the debate is around the need to reduce the operating and support cost, and the need in particular [of] operational requirements for increased range and resolution,” says Tom Vice, president of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.
In response, the company submitted a firm fixed-price proposal for 10 years of contractor logistics support (CLS) for the Air Force’s Global Hawks that would reduce its contribution to the Block 30 cost per flight hour (CPFH) by 40% from the fiscal 2011 level, he says.
Additional fixed-price offers have been made to meet the range/resolution requirement by integrating the U-2’s SYERS-2 multi-band sensor or wet-film Optical Bar Camera on the Block 30 at a cost markedly less than that estimated by the Air Force for upgrading the Global Hawk’s existing EO/IR sensor.
In a report requested by Congress, the Air Force says the CPFH for the Block 30 and U-2 were “roughly equal” in fiscal 2012, at $33,564 for the Global Hawk and $33,407 for the U-2.
But as transit time to the target area increases, the long-endurance Global Hawk becomes cheaper to operate than the U-2 because it requires fewer aircraft to maintain a high-altitude orbit, the report says. The Block 30 flies for 28 hr. versus 12 for the U-2.
“Cost is not the factor,” Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh told lawmakers earlier this month. Intelligence product quality is the real issue, he said, and combatant commanders “would prefer a U-2 product in many mission areas over the Global Hawk.”
The U-2’s longer sensor range is beneficial “when you [are] near a border” and cannot overfly the target, he added.
To tackle the Air Force’s need for “sensor parity” with the U-2, Northrop has used company funds to develop a universal payload adaptor (UPA) that enables the Block 30’s existing sensors to be replaced with greater range/resolution cameras when the mission requires.
The primary proposal involves using the adaptor to integrate the U-2’s-built SYERS-2B EO/IR sensor onto the Block 30 to provide higher resolution and longer slant ranges. Separate proposals cover integration of the Optical Bar Camera (OBC) and in-development SYERS-3 sensor.
The Air Force estimates the cost of upgrading the Global Hawk’s existingEO/IR sensor to meet the requirement as $855 million for development and retrofit of the 18 Block 30s that have been built, with production beginning in fiscal 2020.
The report to Congress puts the cost of integrating the SYERS-2B and OBC on the 18 Global Hawks as $487 million. Vice says Northrop’s fixed-price offer for integrating SYERS-2 “is 6% of the Air Force’s estimate cost of upgrading the Block 30 cameras to the range and resolution required, at no risk to the government.”
The proposal submitted is to integrate GFE SYERS-2 sensors onto six Block 30s “for less than $50 million,” Vice says, adding the universal adaptor is ready and can be available quickly. The offer does require the SYERS-2 sensors to be taken off the U-2s, he acknowledges.
“The company’s proposal is to replace the sensors on six aircraft — we are looking at 18,” Welsh told lawmakers, adding “It takes the sensors off the U-2s, which means we can’t use them anymore.”
Other fixed-price proposals covering integration of the wet-film OBC, digital SYERS-3 and other hyperspectral sensors are aimed at “providing the maximum sensor capability,” Vice says.
To carry the larger camera, the Block 30’s belly-mounted synthetic-aperture radar would be removed and replaced by the UPA. The SYERS-2, OBC or other sensor would then mount to the adaptor. The Block 30’s signal-intelligence sensor would remain in place.
Northrop also has submitted an unsolicited proposal to build the last three of 21 planned Block 30s. Congress provided money for the aircraft in fiscal 2013, but the Air Force has not obligated the funding, arguing it does not make sense to buy additional aircraft it does not intent to operate.
For Northrop, Vice says, the final three Block 30s are key to bridging a potential gap until the delayed production of up to 68 RQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft begins for the U.S. Navy.