Global Hawk Block 40: Too Late to the Ball?


A final deal hasn't yet been hashed out on the fate of the Global Hawk Block 30 after a year of wrangling within the government, and the Air Force seems to have added a second front to the Northrop Grumman's war to save the high-flying unmanned air system from the boneyard.

It simply comes down to money, and to bang for the buck, according to multiple defense sources. And, it seems the service has soured on once high hopes for the Global Hawk to deliver what it thought would be a reasonable price for collecting images, signals intelligence and radar data from 50,000 ft. over the earth or higher. 

Senior Air Force leaders are expected to propose terminating the Global Hawk Block 40 in the forthcoming Fiscal 2014 budget build as a way to pay higher priority bills. This would leave the service with only six Block 20s, four of which are outfitted with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node relay system and two smaller Block 10s at service museums. 

Despite the likelihood of putting the program in the gallows, the Air Force's program office is proceeding with business as usual and preparing for an operational utility evaluation to assess the Block 40's readiness for an early deployment to support operations in U.S. Central Command, possibly as soon as this spring. 

The aircraft is specially outfitted with the Northrop Grumman/Raytheon Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) radar designed for ground surveillance. The 1.5 X 4 ft. radar is unique in its ability to simultaneously track moving ground objects and collect radar images of them. With today's Joint Stars, built for ground surveillance on Boeing's 707, operators must "break track" to collect images. 

Despite the radar's promise, it is years behind schedule and costs millions more than planned, making it hard for the Air Force to justify moving forward to itself. Furthermore, the service's plan from last year to shelve all existing Block 30s in favor of a resurgence of the manned U-2, obliterated the economies of scale and shared maintenance savings by purchasing multiple variants of the same aircraft.  

Still, however, if the operational utility evaluation (OUE) goes well, the aircraft could deploy to U.S. Central Command as soon as spring, according to program management officials. Ultimately, though, the bird may simply have missed its window with the Pentagon. 

Global Hawk was "nice to have" for the service when there was free-flowing post-9/11 cash and the war budget funded the early work of the aircraft in theater. But, with the budget noose tightening around the Pentagon, one source likened the program in recent weeks to a "lit fuze," just waiting to blow up. 

If the Office of the Secretary of Defense, White House and Congress approve the proposal, Northrop Grumman's dreams of using the Global Hawk as a truck to carry multiple sensor payloads for multiple services and nations likely comes to a halt. The Navy is still moving forward with its plans for an $11.4 billion to develop an buy 65 Global Haw Broad Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft to augment the future P-8.

The Air Force's proposal calls for the aircraft to be pulled from service in 2015. The Fiscal 2014 budget should go to Congress early next year. 

Northrop Grumman put saving the Block 30 top on its list of legislative priorities for the past year; the Block 40 is likely to now be included in that lobbying push.

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