Global Hawk replaces U-2 (NY Times)

Message posted by RoadKill on August 03, 2011 at 7:31:08 PST:

New York Times

Under An Unblinking Eye
A costly drone is poised to replace the U-2
By Christopher Drew

PALMDALE, Calif. -- Tucked away here in the Mojave Desert, the assembly plant for the high-flying Global Hawk jet resembles a giant hobby shop.

Work tables surround a handful of fuselages, and an unusually long wing--needed to slip through the thin air at 60,000 feet -- is ready to be bolted into place. Open panels await controls for cameras and eavesdropping gear, and bright blue tool bins and parts vats are scattered around the concrete floor.

Just 50 people work in the factory and a test hangar, and only five of the drones will be built this year. But despite a spate of delays, second-guessing and cost overruns, the Global Hawk is once again on track to replace one of America's most noted aircraft: the U-2 spy plane, famed for its role in the cold war and more recently Afghanistan.

The Air Force decided last month to stick with its $12 billion Global Hawk program, betting that the unmanned drone can replicate the aging U-2's ability to sweep up a broad mix of intelligence from commanding heights, and do it more safely and for much longer stretches than the piloted U-2. The Navy is also onboard, with plans to spend $11 billion on a version that could patrol vast ocean areas.

The continued push for the Global Hawk reflects how drones are changing warfare and how critical high-altitude spying can be in any type of fight. Still, the program remains ensnared in military politics and budget battles, and the aircraft itself awaits some important technical changes that could slow its unveiling. In particular, creating the new models and their high-tech sensors, which can cost more than the planes, has been difficult.

And in an era in which remotely piloted planes are seen as relatively cheap and easy solutions, the Global Hawk has become the Escalade of drones, the gold-plated one that nearly broke the bank.

"The Global Hawk is a very impressive product, but it is also a very expensive product," said Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group, a consultancy in Fairfax, Va. "Those U-2s were paid for a long time ago."

Since 2001, the cost of the Air Force program has more than doubled, and the service recently cut its planned fleet of Global Hawks to 55 from 77. That lifted the total estimate for each plane, including the sensors and all the research and development, to $218 million, compared with $28 million for the Reaper, the largest armed drone.

Pentagon tests also suggested last fall that the new Air Force model was not reliable enough to provide sustained surveillance. Parts failed frequently, and the equipment for intercepting telephone and radio conversations, a vital requirement for replacing the U-2, had trouble pinpointing the source of the calls.

Pentagon officials and executives at Northrop Grumman, which is building the Global Hawk, say they are trimming costs and replacing the faulty parts. Since March, commanders have rushed nine of the planes into use over Japan, Libya and Afghanistan, and they say they have done a good job in taking images of the earthquake damage in Japan and bombing targets in the war zones.

But analysts say the biggest test -- and perhaps the next step in the shift from manned to robotic aircraft -- will come if Northrop can field enough Global Hawks with better eavesdropping gear to make the commanders feel comfortable about retiring the U-2.

That transition was originally supposed to happen this year. Edward A.Walby, a business development director at Northrop, said the company now expected to have enough Global Hawks in the air by the end of 2012. That would give the Air Force time to check them out before phasing out the 32 U-2s by 2015.

But even that could change. Congress has said it will not approve any shift that would leave significant intelligence gaps. Mr. Aboulafia, the aviation analyst, said cuts in the military budget could also slow the transition. And critics of the military's contracting practices say that instead of revamping the Global Hawk project, the Pentagon should have tabled it until all the technology was ready.

"Once again, we have a system that has failed to meet effectiveness and suitability requirements, but one that no doubt will proceed post-haste into full production and deployment," said Thomas P. Christie, a former top Pentagon testing official.

The Global Hawks, monitored by shifts of pilots on computers in California, fly 24-hour missions, twice as long as a U-2 pilot can stay up, and the Pentagon says they will be cheaper to operate.

Like the U-2, they can peer down from twice the height of a commercial airliner and spot a group of insurgents or a tank 50 to 100 miles away. The images can be sent directly to troops in a firefight or to intelligence centers, where analysts examine them and send out more in-depth reports.

The U-2 was created in the 1950s to monitor Soviet nuclear sites. It is still used, as the Global Hawk will be, to supplement satellites by gazing into North Korea and Iran from outside their borders.

But the towering heights have also enabled the U-2 to survey so much territory in Afghanistan, and scoop up so many Taliban phone calls, that it has become one of the best sources of tips for where to send the Predator and Reaper drones, which fly at lower altitudes and fire missiles.

Intelligence officials say the combination of images and intercepted conversations from the same area provides a richer picture of what is going on, and they want the Global Hawk to be able to act as a similar trigger for dispatching other planes.

A more basic version of the Global Hawk has supplied battlefield images in Afghanistan and Iraq since shortly after the 2001 terror attacks. But the effort to enlarge the plane to carry eavesdropping gear and other new sensors required a more substantial redesign than expected. And Northrop is now trying to resolve the problems with the parts. It is replacing faulty electrical generators and navigation systems and improving the eavesdropping software.

Under the latest plans, the Air Force will buy 31 of the Global Hawks with upgraded cameras and the eavesdropping gear and 11 with a sensor that could more closely track the movements of enemy troops and vehicles. The Navy would build 68 of the maritime models, Germany is buying a few of the planes, and NATO might buy some, too.

Here in Palmdale, where Northrop also built the B-2 bombers and is now working on fuselages for the F-35 fighter, there is a sense of relief that the Global Hawk finally seems a little closer to moving from a sidekick role to the spotlight.

Inside the beige factory, Mr. Walby, the Northrop official and a former U-2 pilot, said he sometimes gets flak from his old buddies, who delight in having been able to keep the U-2 relevant. Most of the U-2 pilots know the changeover is inevitable. But a few would rather not acknowledge, he said, that the U-2 is also "limited by the man."

Not only are there limits to how long each mission can last, but U-2 pilots are subject to disorienting decompression illnesses.

"And there's a small group, when I'm at a U-2 reunion, that I have to remind about how we buried four U-2 pilots while I was with the program," Mr. Walby said, referring to crashes. "I said: 'Is it really worth it? Now that we have the technology to stop that from happening, is it worth it?' "


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