The Global Hawk was once the U.S. Air Force's procurement darling, a premier unmanned air system primed to take over or augment key intelligence-collecting missions for the service. Now, however, after more than 10 years of addressing urgent needs in recent wars, service leaders may terminate the Northrop Grumman aircraft.

Top Air Force officials have quietly agreed that the Block 40 version of the UAS could be offered up as a bill-payer in the forthcoming fiscal 2014 budget, according to multiple defense officials.

A kill of the Block 40, which has yet to see operational use, would be the latest blow to the service's relationship with Northrop Grumman. The pair struggled for years—sometimes with Air Force officials publicly admonishing the company—to fund, develop and test the highly ambitious and high-flying UAS. Its cancellation must be approved by Air Force leaders, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and, eventually, Congress.

The Block 40 review comes only a year after the service proposed prematurely shelving the new Block 30 Global Hawks; that plan is still on hold as Congress has directed that they continue operating through the end of next year.

The 2014 budget request will not likely reach Congress until next month, so there is time for Northrop to intensify its already aggressive lobbying campaign to save the Block 30 and—now—its cousin (AW&ST Feb. 6, 2012, p. 34). The former was designed to collect electro-optical and infrared images as well as signals intelligence, while the latter is outfitted with the 1.5 X 4-ft. Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) sensor designed to track moving ground targets and relay data about them to soldiers.

The Air Force and Northrop Grumman have both declined to discuss the decision, saying it is premature to address the 2014 budget plan.

Together, the two variants were linchpins of a potential transformation in the Air Force high-altitude intelligence-collection mission, which since the 1950s has been handled by pilots flying the temperamental U-2.

The Global Hawk was expected to reduce intelligence-collection costs while more than doubling sortie duration and eliminating risk to onboard pilots.

The program received a huge infusion of war funding after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the Air Force pressed first demonstration vehicles and later production variants into service over Iraq and Afghanistan (AW&ST March 12, 2007, p. 56). And the Global Hawk has collected data on nearly every hot spot on Earth—Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, Japan after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Egypt and neighboring countries during the 2011 Arab Spring and, most recently, Mali, program officials say.

It would be a gross oversimplification to blame Pentagon belt-tightening for the Global Hawk Block 40's potential termination. The billions that rushed Block 30 and 40 into the field have been both a blessing and a curse. The Air Force accepted the money, giving the program a chance to cut its teeth in operations, but with the funds came unrealistic expectations. Requirements have been adjusted to include a larger platform and new payloads. The program's contracting vehicles were complex, trying to keep up with U.S. Central Command's (Centcom) urgent needs, and multiple variants were produced through a spiral development program.

According to one defense official, this resulted in the unmet expectation that the UAS could be everything to everyone, at lower cost than the U-2. Despite its performance in-theater, exploiting and disseminating the Global Hawk's intelligence was much more expensive than projected, and developmental cost overruns occurred in 2005 and 2011. Looking at the future force structure, Gen. Michael Hostage, Air Combat Command chief, says, “I'd rather have Global Hawk, but I can't afford it. [It is] a lot more expensive than we are being told.”

While budget cuts alone would not ground the Global Hawk, they are a catalyst, forcing the Air Force to make a choice. Recent years of fiscal scrutiny have exposed a key shortcoming of the Global Hawk program: it could not earn its way into the Air Force arsenal by outperforming the U-2, even though the UAS's advocates say the early designs were never required to do so.

Global Hawk supporters say constantly shifting requirements kept the platform from reaching that fiscal goal. U-2 supporters counter that the UAS was poorly planned—the decision not to choose a more powerful engine to expand the Block 30's payload capacity was a fatal move, says one official.

If the Block 40 is terminated, it would be pulled from service only months after its first planned deployment to Centcom supporting soldiers in Afghanistan, a program official says. This would stunt the Block 40 before it could prove itself on the battlefield.

Forced to carry on business as usual until a final decision is made, the Global Hawk program office is continuing with plans to conduct an operational utility evaluation (OUE) of the system in advance of this possible deployment. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter approved the OUE last April to assess whether the aircraft and its sensor could “deliver limited, but high-demand capability to warfighters in Centcom this spring,” say Air Force program officials at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.

The evaluation will include two aircraft, each fitted with the active, electronically scanned array radar; between the two, they must perform four long-duration sorties. Among the issues to be reviewed will be the ability of the service's pilots, sensor operators and maintainers to generate sorties and “fly missions in an operational environment.” Air Force officials say that “at this point, the system has demonstrated its ability to meet the [early operational capability] mission and no delays are expected to the deployment.”

The OUE has been long-awaited by Northrop Grumman, which overcame numerous challenges to deliver the Block 40, including struggles to develop, calibrate and complete radar testing. RTIP has undergone 454.9 hr. of tests, the program officials say. Commanders in Afghanistan have called for more ground surveillance, and company officials see time in theater as a chance for the Block 40 to prove itself.

But the UAS may have already missed its window of opportunity to earn a place in the arsenal. While project overseers prepare for the OUE, they must still undergo the methodical initial operational test and evaluation process by which Pentagon testers wring the system out. That is not slated to start until May 2014, and would include evaluations of only some of the radar's originally planned modes, such as tracking moving ground targets, collecting radar pictures and—unique to RTIP—executing both modes simultaneously without “breaking track” on a target.

More exotic modes, such as high-range resolution allowing precise measurements of targets, were shelved during development as too ambitious in the near term. These modes will not be able to compete for funding until fiscal 2016 at the soonest, Air Force officials say.

The Block 40 has also lacked a powerful constituency in the Pentagon. The mission for which it is designed is conducted now by the Joint Stars aircraft, managed by Northrop Grumman and housed on a Boeing 707. The data collected supports U.S. Army, not air, operations, so an Air Force community never formed to champion this capability.

Talk of a Block 40 kill has been rampant at the Pentagon. One defense official says this was a “lit fuse,” giving the program a “50/50 chance” of survival in today's tight budget environment.

Northrop Grumman has delivered eight of 11 Block 40 aircraft on order, according to Alfredo Ramirez, chief engineer at Northrop. Sixteen Block 30s of 31 planned have been delivered, says company spokeswoman Gemma Loochkartt. Early work on the next of each block is underway at the company's Moss Point, Miss., facility, and both are slated for delivery in 2014.

Congress has moved to keep the Block 30 flying through 2014, despite the Air Force proposal; aircraft have been operating out of Al Dhafra AB in the United Arab Emirates since late 2001 in support of post 9/11 operations.

A Block 40 kill would leave the Air Force with six Block 20 aircraft, four of which were quickly outfitted with the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node payload designed to enhance communications in Centcom.

Meanwhile, NATO's work on the Alliance Ground Surveillance program continues, as does the U.S. Navy's program to outfit a Global Hawk platform with a maritime surveillance capability. The Navy is slated to spend $11.4 billion developing and building 68 Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) aircraft to augment its burgeoning P-8 fleet. Some defense officials suggest BAMS is safeguarded from cancellation by the Navy's methodical procurement approach.

NATO is expected to purchase 5-8 Block 40s with an RTIP that has added maritime and synthetic-aperture-radar modes. One defense official suggests that the Air Force's eight aircraft could be transferred to NATO, if the service terminates the Block 40.

Germany has procured a single Global Hawk to carry an indigenous signals-intelligence collection payload. The defense ministry could buy four more of the aircraft.

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for a timeline of the Global Hawk's tumultuous history, from 1995 to the present, or go toAviationWeek.com/globalhawk

Global Hawk Orders and Deliveries
Customer Ordered/Planned Delivered Status
Block 0Advanced Concept TechnologyDemonstration Aircraft USAF 7 7 3 transferred to NASA, 1 at USAF museum 3 lost: 1 in early flight, 2 in wartime ops
Block 10 USAF 9 9 2 in USAF museums 5 transferred to Navy (one lost in ops) 2 transferred to NASA
Block 20 USAF 6 6 4 converted to carry a communications relay 2 test aircraft
Block 30 USAF 31 planned 18 ordered 16 21 authorized by Congress; remaining 10 proposed for termination; USAF also proposes mothballing delivered aircraft
Block 40 USAF 11 8 in development, testing
TritonBroad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) Navy 68 0 in development
NATO AGSAlliance Ground Surveillance NATO 5 0 in development
Euro Hawk German defense ministry 1 1 4 additional may be procured