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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