By AARON MEHTA
WASHINGTON — The Global Hawk UAV looks to be a big winner in the US Air Force’s fiscal 2015 budget submission, an impressive turn of events for a program the service has spent years attempting to kill.
The Global Hawk Block 30 will be funded when President Barack Obama’s budget arrives March 4, said two sources with knowledge of budget discussions. The sources confirmed that funding will come at the expense of the U-2 spy plane, which the Air Force had promoted as a cheaper alternative to the unmanned system. The news was first reported by Aviation Week.
Things can still change, but one source called the Block 30 decision as secure as anything in the Pentagon’s budget. While funding is less secure for the Global Hawk Block 40 — a more advanced version of the UAV that includes an improved radar — sources indicate it will likely receive funding as well.
A high-altitude, long-range UAV, the Global Hawk is touted by manufacturer Northrop Grumman as the best platform for airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). It was funded heavily after the 9/11 terrorist attacks but fell out of favor with the Pentagon by the end of the last decade following a series of cost overruns.
When the Pentagon submitted its fiscal 2013 budget, it included a plan to kill off the Global Hawk. But Northrop activated its network of supporters on Capitol Hill, and ever since, Congress has protected the aircraft — much to the consternation of Air Force officials who insisted the U-2 can perform the same tasks at a much lower price. Northrop has delivered 17 Block 30s and nine Block 40s, company figures say.
The fiscal 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, signed into law by Obama on Jan. 17, contained $10 million to study whether the U-2’s sensors, particularly the SYERS-2A camera, can be installed on the Global Hawk. If that technology can be coupled, it would provide another talking point for doing away with the older, manned spy plane — although one source cautions not to read too much into operational justifications.
“History indicates that they will try to justify [moving away from the U-2] through an operational explanation, but the bottom line [is] there’s just not enough money to keep them both,” one source said, adding that this decision is driven in large part by the service’s wish to avoid another bruising fight with Congress.
“What we have long maintained is that the platforms are in many ways complementary, and if we could afford to keep both, we would,” Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, Air Force deputy chief of staff for ISR, said in a Jan. 23 interview. “I believe we are at the point where there are only hard choices, and we cannot afford to keep both platforms. And so this is another area where there is a robust debate over which platform should we keep as we go forward.”
Otto added that while the U-2’s defensive systems would allow it to survive longer in a contested environment, neither aircraft is ideal for ISR against an area with high-level anti-access/area-denial technologies.
Per service policy, an Air Force spokeswoman declined to comment on budget details prior to its submission to Congress. A Northrop spokeswoman added that the company looks “forward to continued operations in the foreseeable future.”
While the Global Hawk seems poised for a victory, other platforms are left fighting for a shrinking pot of money.
The KC-10 tanker and A-10 close-air support aircraft remain likely to receive cuts in the upcoming budget, despite massive congressional outcry in favor of the A-10. The Air Force has identified those planes as potential “vertical cuts” that could remove single-mission fleets from service as a cost-cutting measure.
One program still fighting for life, according to sources, is the Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH), the service’s replacement for the Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk used for search and rescue. The service has said it would select an offering from the team of Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin, the sole bidder for the program, once funding becomes available. Service programmers have been looking for ways to fund the program in 2015, sources said.
As with Global Hawk, politics on the Hill could play a role in the Air Force’s decision.
Dozens of House members wrote a December letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel voicing support for the program. Congress also successfully put a rider into the fiscal 2014 budget bill protecting funds for CRH. Deborah Lee James, the new Air Force secretary, responded to the signatories on Jan. 17.
“This matter is pre-decisional, pending the outcome of the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget review process,” James wrote.