Delays and Rising Costs May Put Air Force’s Global Hawk High Flying Drone in Tailspin

DOD Buzz’s Colin Clark reported late Friday that the Air Force’s top buyer, David Van Buren, in a rare on-the-record brief to reporters, said he is none too happy with the progress of Northrop Grumman’s high-altitude, long-endurance RQ-4 Global Hawk drone.

Global Hawk was meant to replace the iconic U-2 for long-endurance (more than 32 hours at a time) spy missions high over (up to 60,000 feet) unsuspecting nations, such as China and Iran, but program delays have kept the U-2 flying. The jet powered drone has been flying over Afghanistan snapping high-resolution images of IED emplacers or listening in on Taliban cell-phone conversations as there is such high demand there for drone coverage.

Now, because of delays, poorly performing sensors, and rising costs (GAO says $183 million per copy), the Global Hawk program is in jeopardy:

“Testing and delivery has been slower than expected,” Van Buren said of Block 30 of Global Hawk. “I am not happy with the pace of that program and we are not happy with the cost of the air vehicle.”

While Van Buren’s comments on Global Hawk weaved back and forth between Block 30 and 40 and the overall program, he made very clear he is not happy with the Global Hawk program overall.

A cost review has been ordered and should be ready by late summer, early fall. I asked Van Buren if Northrop Grumman’s program leadership was to blame and he declined to answer, saying he wanted data from the pending review before drawing conclusions about that.

Given how measured and careful Van Buren is, we checked around the building to get some sense of just how bad things are for Global Hawk. We heard from one well-placed source that the program could well be headed for death row unless things improve quickly and substantially.”

No word yet from the Navy which is developing a version of the RQ-4 for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) mission (one that some might argue is redundant with the Global Hawk).

— Greg Grant

  • Mastro

    Interesting. I know the Global Hawk has been operating as an experimental craft.

    What is exactly the problem? The sensors? Drop the problem ones and use what we’ve been using for 5-6 years.

    Maybe a drone is NOT the way to go when flying over uncontested airspace- can’t we load up a Gulfstream with sensors, gas tanks and a small toilet?

  • Wild Bill

    So what does this mean for the Navy?

  • This comes on the heels of Army’s contract for LEMV airship; which is expected to result in craft with “long endurance” mission capabilities in excess of 500 hours at a time. Compared to a measly 32 hours for Global Hawk, this is a no-brainer. Time for industry to wake up. Happily for Northrup…they are the same contractor.

    Navy? Two years ago, Navy put out Request for Informaiton leading to airships for BAMS role; a navalized version of LEMV is soon to come.

    While the basic premise (hybrid, slightly heavier than air design )behind the current selected candidate for LEMV is flawed; modern airships (NOT BLIMPS!) have enormous potential in multiple defensive and offensive roles for military.

  • How many more headlines do we have to see before the Armed Services Committees push for acquisitions reform? This is unconscionable.

  • kyle

    unfortunately I know one of the manufacturing suppliers of the faulty sensors. The problems is they intentionally ship 80-90% of the sensors defective just to make a shipping schedule instead of making sure their product passes milspec.

  • stephen russell

    We need this on the US Mex border alone & over So American drug farms aside Afganistan/Pakistan area, etc.
    Fund this bird & give the AF a whole Recon Wing of GH.
    & 1 sqdn for the Navy from shoreside bases.

  • SMSgt Mac

    Man, that is some spin on the article I read earlier today. Regular ‘Count Floyd’ chill to it – ooooo scary kids! (apologies to SCTV).
    Flight Testing at Eddy was/is bottlenecked because they had to relearn how to test unmanned systems when meat-servos are the drivers. The remedy is to offload acceptance testing to another base and let Eddy focus on Flight Test.

    Kyle – if got facts and data or suspicions and you’re in the program report that cr** up the chain, outside the program call the FW&A hotline. DoD hasn’t the time nor money to fool around with that kind of stuff.

  • Insanely badly written requirements, lack of any decision making ability, byzantine system of aristocracy and bureaucracy in project offices is the root cause and GH isn’t alone. A VP of major aerospace company recently told me “there is more profit in chaos than order”.