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RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV  (Source: USAF)
The Global Hawk may be expensive and overdue, but the unmanned attack aircraft is one slick looking piece of machinery

After budget issues and significant political bickering, the famed U-2 spy plane should finally be replaced by the RQ-4 unmanned Global Hawk by 2015, U.S. military officials claim.  

In addition to lackluster field testing, the overall price of the UAV had some politicians doubting its worth.  For example, Reaper UAVs used for armed missions cost around $28 million, while the Global Hawk will cost upwards of $220 million (each) to manufacture and get into the air.

Once completed, the Global Hawk jet is expected to glide through the air at more than 60,000 feet in elevation. 

The Global Hawk will need to be able to properly equip the Optical Bar Camera, a high-resolution wet film camera that will require modifications before it can be properly mounted.  Without this camera and other necessary changes, the Global Hawk will not make an ideal reconnaissance craft that will be used for generations to come.

During a recent National Press Club function, Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, who is responsible for the USAF Global Hawk program, said there should be no more U-2 aircraft by fiscal 2015.  However, there are unconfirmed thoughts of the U-2 and Global Hawk working together for a short while in 2015 and beyond -- even though the U-2 has been in service since late 1955.

The Northrop Grumman-made UAV will be discussed further during a conference in Washington, D.C. later this month, with panels and live demonstrations of current UAV efforts.   

Over the past decade, U.S. spending on the nation's Air Force has at least doubled, with unmanned technology a major necessity for military budgets.  Each flight hour for the U-2 cost $31,000, and the Global Hawk's per flight hour cost is around $35,000 -- with the higher price already dropped to a more cost-friendly level.

Mounting political pressure from both sides forced Lt. Col Thomas and his team to help lower operating costs of the expensive aircraft.  However, the $12 billion project still as received its fair share of criticism from lawmakers, arguing if its overinflated cost is worth the current man hours of development.

The use of UAVs has become increasingly popular for reconnaissance and attack missions, and the Global Hawk is expected to be an important step forward. 

In addition to recon missions, the Global Hawk was able to assist in Japan post-earthquake and tsunami relief -- and could be used for similar future humanitarian missions.    At least 20 missions were flown and 500 hours of collective man hours were flown after the earthquake and tsunami, with thousands of high-quality images captured.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin remains an important contractor for the U.S. government, though the private contractor must now look for newer generation stealth and UAV aircraft.  If the U-2 is retired and the Global Hawk successfully takes its place, Lockheed will have very little to answer back with for quite some time.  

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Just a couple things I want to point out...
By chomskyi on 8/13/2011 2:15:59 PM , Rating: 4
First of all, you talk about the U-2 as though it were ancient, outdated technology. Its certainly not fresh as a daisy, but we are talking about the U-2S that the AF currently flies... the U-2S is so different from the U-2A that flew back in the 50s, you can hardly even call it the same plane.

Second, maybe its just me, but the tone in the article seems to imply that the Global Hawk is still under development and hasn't actually been fielded yet, other than mention of it being used in Japan after the disaster there. The AF has used it operationally since the mid-2000s.

Lastly, the U-2 isn't going away anytime soon because of one thing: it's just more capable. It doesn't have the long loiter time a GH does, but as far as sensors go, it blows the GH out of the water.

I'm not saying that RPAs aren't the future, but GH currently can only augment U-2 capabilities, not replace them.

RE: Just a couple things I want to point out...
By Jedi2155 on 8/13/2011 5:14:11 PM , Rating: 2
I also would like to point out that the per unit manufacturing cost for the RQ-4 is about $35 million each, but when you factor in R&D costs (which is close to already paid for), it rises to $218 million. I of course support the most capable and cost effective package and at the moment it seems that the U2 is still more cost effective and capable. The RQ-4's long loiter period still makes it rather useful in certain scenarios.

By inperfectdarkness on 8/13/2011 9:08:12 PM , Rating: 1
define "cost effective". it essentially takes 3 pilots and three u2's to cover the amount of time that 1 rq4 can be on station; if not more. each of those pressure suits is a $200,000 "investment". then you have all of the gear that a pilot needs to operate and/or survive in an emergency. that's all excess weight.

while the $35 million cost is expensive, you have to take into account that OVER HALF of that cost is likely in the sensor array; meaning that that cost is duplicated in the U2 doing the same type of mission. i would be shocked to find the fly-away cost for just the airframe (minus sensor equipment) exceeding $20 million. and then of course, the rq4 undoubtedly has higher relative fuel-efficiency (gauging by the amount of loiter time it is capable of).

this isn't some of the "f35 will replace a10" BS that has been spouted off in the past. these two airframes overlap considerably. the sr71 was essentially replaced by satellite imagery, and the u2 is getting replaced by the rq4. between satellite and global-hawk, our static-image ISR-feed needs are met.

fwiw, the only considerable "deficiency" the rq4 has is in real-time imagery. it was at one time hoped that its MTI capability would be able to supplant the role of JSTARS, but the size of the airframe can provide nowhere near the sheer coverage area that JSTARS can. it would likely take 4-6 rq4's to cover the area that 1 JSTARS can blanket.

this is fine though, the rq4 was designed to replace the u2; and that's what it will do, and quite handily.

RE: Just a couple things I want to point out...
By yxalitis on 8/14/2011 7:44:45 PM , Rating: 1
the sr71 was essentially replaced by satellite imagery

Surely the SR-71 was replaced by a stealthy, and still classified manned airframe. satellites can't perform the same tasks as an SR-71, i.ebe overhead at a specific , unexpected time, and loiter.

By Reclaimer77 on 8/15/2011 11:40:29 AM , Rating: 1
Satellites aren't as effective as spy planes because everyone knows the specific orbits of them all and when they will be overhead. So they simply hide or mask whatever it is they are working on until the satellite is gone.

RE: Just a couple things I want to point out...
By cyclosarin on 8/13/2011 7:12:06 PM , Rating: 2
Lastly, the U-2 isn't going away anytime soon because of one thing: it's just more capable. It doesn't have the long loiter time a GH does, but as far as sensors go, it blows the GH out of the water.

The U-2 will be replaced just as soon as they can put a multi-spectral sensor on a GH with ASIP. The OBC mentioned in the article might keep the U-2 flying but it will no longer be the primary high altitude ISR platform. The ASIP is currently being added to the GH, block 40 has it right now. The last puzzle piece is putting a SYERS or equivalent on the GH. Once they get a multi-spectral on the GH it becomes the best platform even if the sensors are the same due to carrying SAR all the time as well.

RE: Just a couple things I want to point out...
By cali_guy76 on 8/14/2011 6:19:58 PM , Rating: 2
ASIP is classified information kind sir. Might want to delete said comment.

RE: Just a couple things I want to point out...
By cyclosarin on 8/14/2011 6:49:05 PM , Rating: 3
ASIP is classified information kind sir. Might want to delete said comment.

The acronym ASIP or the actual name Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload are neither of them classified in any way shape or form. The fact that it is currently deployed on the U-2 and is being integrated into the Global Hawk are also not classified. Thanks for playing though, and let your local SSO know that you require remedial training immediately.

RE: Just a couple things I want to point out...
By cali_guy76 on 8/15/2011 12:16:02 AM , Rating: 2
Its ok dude, I reported it to my security office on base. Can you link your contact info to make it easier? Appreciate your cooperation.

RE: Just a couple things I want to point out...
By BillyAZ1983 on 8/15/2011 7:24:00 AM , Rating: 3
Hey cali_guy76, you might wanna not jump the gun on getting someone in trouble.

Link above shows an official Northrop-Grumman press release from 2007 talking about ASIP making it's debut flight on a U2 no less!

If a quick google search can turn that info up, I highly doubt that's classified info.

By cyclosarin on 8/15/2011 9:42:48 PM , Rating: 2
If a quick google search can turn that info up, I highly doubt that's classified info.

Don't worry, it isn't. He also won't be reporting anything to anyone since he doesn't want to become the butt of more jokes from his peers.

At first I thought he might be a SIGINT A1C who thought he was cool because he had a TS/SCI clearance. Now I know he's just some A1C at the 9th MXG who thinks he's cool because he works on some random part of the U-2. Truthfully if he has this same attitude at work he probably works in the snack bar or hands out tools and his supervisor doesn't let him anywhere near an aircraft.

U-2 IS HERE TO STAY...Insider info
By cali_guy76 on 8/14/2011 6:04:19 PM , Rating: 1
First off, the U-2 IS NOT going to be phased out by 2015. We are fully funded until 2018. Second, the Golbal Hawk is a litteral piece of crap. I have worked with it and it is no where close to being as capable as the U-2.

The U-2S is not the plane of the 50s. They were built in the early 1980s and then upgraded in the late 90s early 2000s. It carries more sensors than the Global Hawk could only dream about carring.

The Global Hawk is plagued with so many problems and setbacks not to mention overbudget. USAF has to first get the Global Hawk airborne which is a feet in itself.

I know first hand that the U-2 WILL NOT be going away this decade. Might want to check your facts DT, that Lt Col is full of shit.


By Ringold on 8/15/2011 1:18:16 AM , Rating: 2
Gotta say, based on information in the article, it sounds to me like the Global Hawk is more expensive per hour to operate and significantly less capable. As a tax payer, and a cheap one at that, the U2 sounds far more logical.

UAV's are supposed to be attractive because they can be cheaper and more capable due to not having to support a pilot. Apparently someone didn't get the memo?

RE: U-2 IS HERE TO STAY...Insider info
By DougF on 8/15/2011 8:24:54 AM , Rating: 2
I suggest you relook at your migration plan for FY14 and 15, according to the FY12 Migration Plan approved on 6 June this year. They show the entire U-2 fleet being retired by the end of FY15 and disposed of (shredded or in museums) by FY16.

The author is correct.

RE: U-2 IS HERE TO STAY...Insider info
By cali_guy76 on 8/15/2011 7:49:38 PM , Rating: 2
You are incorrect sir. I work with the U-2 program and I am here to tell you we are here to stay. The Global Hawk program is plagued with problems. It cannot replace the U-2 as it sits. The RQ-4A cannot physically carry all the sensors, RQ-4B is plagued with too many issues to list, and the RQ-4C if it ever comes to production, may have a chance but not at its current state.

The U-2S is to capable of a system and the Pentagon will not let it go anytime soon. The Global Hawk fan club may have you think it will fully replace the U-2 this decade as they fear their funding will be stripped by Congress. Read into it, you will see.

As I said, I work with the U-2 and I get my info from the horses mouth on weekly briefs. I also work in the same buiding as the Global Hawk section and know all the woes that plague them. Belive the article if you want but once 2018 rolls around, you will hear me whisper you a BIG told u so!

By DougF on 8/16/2011 8:50:54 AM , Rating: 2
And I get my info from the U-2 Weapon System Program Manager, who told AF/A8PL in the Spring of this year that ALL U-2s will be in the boneyard at the 309th Aerospace Maintenance And Regeneration Group (AMARG) no later than the end of FY15.

I'm not debating capabilities of either platform, nor the worthiness of either. I am simply relaying official AF programming decisions (to probably cut costs, even if it means going with a less capable system).

So, I suggest you talk to the U-2 Single Manager or Chief Engineer, one of whom had to agree to the disposal plan given to AF/A8PL this Spring. The official AF migration plan for the next five years was approved in June of this year. Now, like many plans, it is not set in concrete and is revised every year for the next five years, so it may change next year, but right now you're not going to see another U-2S/TU-2S fly after FY15, and all are programmed for disposal (shredding or museums) in FY16.

If you're stationed at WR-ALC, I'm nearby, and we can bet a soda as to who is right...

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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