The RQ-4 Global Hawk’s Continuing Woes

So, the Pentagon still isn’t happy with Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk drone. Just this week a report from the DoD’s top weapons tester emerged saying the high altitude spy jet is “not operationally effective for conducting near-continuous, persistent” ISR, according to Bloomberg.

Apparently, the Block 30 version of the jet is only capable of providing 40 percent of its requested coverage during flight tests in last fall and early winter that saw three different planes flying three to four missions a week.  All this has led the pentagon to declare that the jets — long slated as the replacement for the ancient U-2 Dragon Lady fleet — are not operationally suitable.

The system “is not operationally suitable,” the report states. “Global Hawk long endurance flights do not routinely provide persistent ISR coverage due to low air vehicle reliability.”

“Mission-critical components fail at high rates, resulting in poor takeoff reliability, high air abort rates, low mission capable rates, an excessive demand for critical spare parts and a high demand for maintenance support,” the report said.

The Air Force has bought 16 of 42 planned Block 30 drones, designed to take detailed ground pictures from high altitudes and to collect signals intelligence. The remaining 26 drones would cost about $3.08 billion, David Van Buren, the Air Force’s senior acquisition executive, said in a previous interview.

This comes more than one year after Van Buren said he was not happy with Northrop’s performance in delivering the jet on time and on-budget. Last June, the Pentagon annoucned that it was delyaing its decsion on buying production parts  for the Block 30 and 40 versions of the planes after a Global Hawk performed poorly in  tests to see how well it could transfer its sensor data to a ground station. That problem was blamed on the fact that the ground station wasn’t the type that would be used in the real world.

However, last fall’s tests were supposed to have been performed using the actual system, known as the Distributed Common Ground System, that is used to process airborne intelligence info at military bases around the world.

So, this is one more blow to the program that, as Bloomberg points out, has already seen its costs balloon more than 25 percent. Not a good thing in a time of budget cuts for programs that don’t seem to be performing as advertised.

Here are some more not-so-happy details on the program per the Bloomberg report:

The current procurement cost — exclusive of research, development and base construction — is $113.9 million, up from $90.8 million in 2000 dollars, according to service figures. When research, development and construction of facilities are factored in, the cost is $173.3 million per aircraft; the comparable cost in 2000 dollars is $150 million.

The report highlights deficiencies with the plane’s airframe and sensor equipment. Frequent failures of “mission- critical” components — the electrical generator, navigational unit and adhesives used to secure nut plates — resulted in delayed takeoffs or canceled missions, according to the document.

The Enhanced Imagery Sensor Suite, or EISS, made by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co., provides data that meet or exceed most operational requirements for imagery intelligence, while the Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload, or ASIP, made by Northrop, doesn’t consistently deliver actionable signal intelligence, according to the report.

The inability of the aircraft to conduct persistent operations “is not a permanent condition,” and can be mitigated if the Air Force takes “strong corrective actions” on the reliability issues identified by the Pentagon, according to the document.

The report includes 16 recommendations to improve the operational effectiveness and suitability of the aircraft, including upgrading communication systems, developing de-icing systems to boost all-weather capabilities and improving operator training programs for the ASIP sensor.

“In the interim, operational commanders should anticipate low air vehicle mission capable rates, spare part shortages, and a heavy reliance on system contractor support to sustain operations,” the report says.

Yup, that last paragraph sounds great.





  • jamesb

    I’ll second that USA…..


    First the F-35…Now this…..

  • SJE

    So Global Hawk costs as much as the flyaway cost of an F-22! WTF indeed!!

    Hey fellow readers: we need to incorporate ourselves as defense contractors.

  • Ryan Everett Cheesman

    Please fix the spelling errors in this article.

    SJE, your wrong about the cost, the F22 costs nowhere near the 173 million dollar cost of this drone. Also, the costs balloon when the order quatity goes down. The manufacturer always attempts to recover the cost of designing and building up the assembly lines regardless of the order size. Order more, see the cost go down per unit.

    Northrop does have a history of underbidding contracts, so I am sure a lot of the cost overruns could be attributed to that fact as well. Just look at the N-UCAV project. Boeing should have one that hands down because they were honest and in my mind had a better drone.

    • mpower6428

      if the global hawk “ACTUALLY WORKED” as sold the order quantity might not have gone down. doe’s that make sense?

    • Cheesed

      Please fix the spelling errors in this comment.

  • Mastro

    Well- I guess the U2’s will stay flying a few more years…

    When a drone flies a 20-30 hour mission parts reliability might actually be required.

  • kyle yoder

    The biggest problem is one of the subcontractors from RI for the GlobalHawk program supplies the military and military contractors with dangerously defective electronic parts.

  • Hunter78

    Terminate the contract now. Start anew with Northrop not allowed to play. Contractors have to learn there’s a penalty for non-performance. If they’re in trouble, they need to communicate that early, so plans can be re-organized.

    Many Defense Industry Hawks, otherwise Righties, mightily shout for an end to “waste, fraud, and abuse”, but are quiet when it happens in their own backyard.

  • anon

    Terminate the contract without paying termination fees to Global Hawk. What a mess.

    If Lockheed was tasked to build the U-2 today it would cost 200 million a pop, and the SR’s would cost 500 million or some absurd number, especially at low production rates.

    I thought Global Hawk was doing well. Maybe it was just that its problems were suppressed or not as widely reported as JSF and others.

    • ew-3

      The key to keeping costs down is not having so many vendors with political connections. The U-2 would still be low dollars due to Kelly Johnson running things. The modern version of the old skunk works is Global Atomics. They pay for their own R&D. The simply show a finished product and they own all the subcontractors. Much better business model.

  • Mark

    I am kind of baffled at some of our technology that we have flying and defending our country. Our mission ready status is low on some of our aircraft, with the continued unit reduction being ordered on new aircraft you need something flying more often with less maintaining of normal systems. Part interchangablitity would help with equipment readiness, but we design a new wheel everytime just to roll around. The saying of “They don’t build them like they used to” goes very far with our current trend. The famous Xbox with all its red ring of death fame has a better mean time between failure then these high dollar gold plated lead our country is dishing out. Thank you Microsoft for allowing me to continue playing Call of Duty 24/7!!!!!

    • anon

      What could you build to interchange with the Global Hawk? And it’s not like interchangeability is making JSF run any more smoothly, as it’s the common parts like the oxygen generator that are having issues.

      If you’re proposing interchange with the U-2, then pause and remember that the U2 was built in the ’60s and no new ones have been built for decades, and that assumes the tooling isn’t gone or destroyed. Parts commonality would still involve serious design work and appropriate compromises all in the name of parts commonality. There can’t be parts commonality with the Predators, since they’re made by General Atomics (though they can share parts if they share subcontractors on systems.)

      • SJE

        Get a used Lear Jet and put sensors on it and appropriate controls to be remotely operated. Use the passenger space for extra fuel.

        • anon

          You’d probably spend quite a bit on the “put sensors on it”. Using commercial airframes off-the-shelf for applications beyond using them to transport people has unseen costs.

  • SJE

    When the US went into space, there was a question about how to write in zero gravity. The US invented the pressurized ink pen. The Russians used a pencil.

    New technology is good, but def contractors would have you reinvent the wheel each time.

    • Mark

      When the US went into space, there was a question about how to write in zero gravity. The US invented the pressurized ink pen. The Russians used a pencil

      Read more:…

      Exactly! Anyone thinking of Rube Goldberg when they read that comment? I’m surprised NASA didn’t request a new crawler to move the space shuttle back and forth to the launch site everytime. Anyone ever see how much grease that thing spews out and is required on the tracks for it to operate?? Ungodly….but it works…I never heard of a launch being delayed because the crawler was in need of maintanance or spare part shortage! lol

      I am impressed with some of our equipment though and I do have a hard time condemning alot of it. I would rather be fighting a war with the best of the best, especially if my kids were over there now fighting.

    • PMI

      Urban myth.

      Astronauts initially used pencils. Broken lead in zero G was a potential hazard. Paul Fisher developed the pressurized cartridge on his own dime & sent a sample to NASA. The pen worked flawlessly so NASA began to purchase them.

      Russian Cosmonauts also now use the the Fisher pen.

      • SJE

        OK, I stand corrected. I did not realize that aspect of the story.


    This is the case of wanting something so badly that any problem is deliberately overlooked or swept under the rug, regardless of cost or complexity. As for any product, the cost of the production line, design, materials, and processes is the same whether you buy one item or 1,000. For example, the tech manuals for a jet must be created and delivered for the first delivered jet. It doesn’t matter how many jets you buy after that. So the cost of the manuals is divided by the number of jets purchased. That makes the program cost per jet a lot higher than the actual fly away cost. So the first 5, 10, 20 billion dollars in any new project may not actually buy even one jet, one widget, one car, one coffee pot, etc. Tooling for a new model year of an existing car may cost 1 - 2 Billion Dollars up front. Now calculate how many cars you have to sell to break even, on just the tooling to make the first new car?