Adios Global Hawk, U-2 Will Stick Around (updated)

Wow, so it looks like we’re seeing the first of the upcoming budget cuts for the Air Force trickle out. The AP is reporting that the Air Force is cancelling the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude spy drone opting instead to keep the legendary U-2 Dragon Lady in service (for now, anyway)! Yup, the 50-year old U-2 is replacing its replacement for the second time. Remember, it the U-2 outlasted the SR-71 Blackbird, a plane also meant to replace it.

Rather than fight through the Block 30 version of the jet’s teething problems, service officials are moving to can the Air Force’s version of the Northrop Grumman-made RQ-4, a jet the Navy also flies.

Officials say Pentagon budget cuts will end the Air Force’s long-range surveillance drone known as the Global Hawk, but keep the Navy’s version of the unmanned aircraft.

Defense analyst Loren Thompson says defense officials have decided to rely on the less expensive, high-altitude U-2 spy plane, which has a shorter range but has been used in Asia, particularly to keep an eye on North Korea.

Thompson, who is with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, says the Global Hawk, which can stay airborne for 24 hours, would be more valuable as the Pentagon shifts focus to the vast Pacific region.

Officials say that while Air Force Block 30 version is being cut, the Navy’s variant could be used by the Air Force. Global Hawks are made by Northrop Grumman Corp.

Just last week we ran a post asking about last summer’s mysterious crash of a Global Hawk just inside Pakistan. I wonder if Air Force and Pentagon officials are simply giving up on the older, problem laden UAV program in favor of pushing money into newer, more survivable drones that incorporate lessons learned from Global Hawk into their designs.

Speaking of budget cuts, check out what’s going on with Army vehicles.


Aol Defense is reporting that the air service will keep buying the Block 40 version of the Global Hawk while getting rid of the Block 30 jets.

  • -dp

    Dumb question from a noob – what are the substantive differences between the Navy and Air Force versions? Are they structural (i.e. design modifications to launch from carrier) or are there differences in the actual guts (i.e. sensors etc.).

    • Guest A

      The Navy version doesn’t fly from carriers. My understanding is it’s more for maritime surveillance and tracking surface vessels than it is for actual recon of other countries.

    • donut

      Keep in mind Global Hawk happened because Air Force bought a DARPA product. BAMS is really what Global Hawk should’ve been, had NGC been given the budget necessary to turn it into a real product instead of just an upgraded DARPA concept.

  • blight

    Germans still have Eurohawk. Perhaps if we ask nicely…

  • Mastro

    Maybe this we bill the wake up call that UAV’s aren’t the Ultimate Solution.

    What was the source of the cost overruns? Was it related to the UAV part? Or some fancy spy camera?

    Remind me- what was the last aviation project to be in budget? The F18 or maybe the U2 back in 1955?

  • Marcase

    I’m amazed that the Predator/Reaper can operate globally, but (coms?) troubles with Global Hawk were never resolved (then again, there was the RQ-170…)

    Of course, there are those rumors of an even more stealthy, X-47B based, HALE-type UAV in the works. Or perhaps that Mach 5+ project being cooked up.

    Aurora revisited…?

    • Tom

      I think the more likely answer is not that the U-2 will soldier on indefinitely, but rather they’re moving on to the next generation UAV which Northrop Grumman has been developing as a secret project (Aviation Week had an article recently that Northrop Grumman has a multi-billion dollar secret project that would fit this bill).

      • Mastro

        I hope so- but that was what they said when the SR-71 was retired.

        I’m still waiting on the Mach 5 Aurora-

        Instead we got the U-2 with a new camera-

      • Jeff

        I tend to think that the U-2 is just such a generally cheap to operate relative to all the alternatives that have come along. I do tend to agree its probably largely being used as a cover for other programs.

        • blight

          Is it? You’d think the production lines for the U-2 are no longer open, so if major repairs are required the parts would come from cannibalization?

          • Cthel

            They may be cannibalising airframes that have reached their fatigue limit, since they’ve been in service for 50 years.

            If so, it raises the issue of how soon the last ones reach the fatigue limit, and whether they decide to re-wing and/or re-engine them.

    • Chris

      Yes, let’s keep a plane that is 50+ years old and keep throwing money into an old plane because they whine the loudest. If it was good enough then why now. Why say a plane that will cost tons of money to pay for all the time the pilots spend away. That does not include all those needed to keep the plane up and also those for intel. I think we need to all put our big boy pants and realize all planes go away one time or another. U-2 will only be around a short time because they are not irreplaceable.

      • U2Chief

        the U-2 is more cost effective and cheaper to maintain the the RQ-4. as someone who works around them all time i can tell you the hawk is a piece of crap the U-2 is mostly simplistic and has better use of all the sensors where as the global hawk is difficult to work with. ask anyone in Intel which aircraft they would rather work with. its not whats new and whats old the Dragon Lady is simply more superior. the U-2 is projected to be around till at least 2023 probably longer.

    • Oman

      Aurora… lol …. hahahahahaha… There’s the problem!

  • People have been in development for 200,000 years (approximately block 8,000); and -though still prone to occasional catastrophic failure- with good selection and regular testing, people provide excellent reliability and are adaptable to many different environments and situations.

    It would be far easier to develop a machine that poked an exhausted pilot every two minutes, and served strong coffee throughout his 24 hour flight, than it would be to develop a reliable robot replacement – just an idea.

    • Mr R Dawkins

      Really? According to many leading Americans, people have only been in development for 6000 years.

      This may explain a lot.

  • Dan Gao

    What a shame. I know the Global Hawk has had it’s share of problems but to see it canned outright sucks. You know, for all the BS you hear in the media about the supposed twilight of manned aircraft and the rise of drones, real innovative UAV development has been highly disappointing. I hope the stealthy X-47 and similar craft will have more success and be accepted into service soon.

  • Arrowz

    They are canceling a block 30 aircraft. It’s like canceling a 2000 model of a car, it’s an old version anyway.

  • Steelers43

    The RQ-4 can not do one very important thing that the RQ-170 can which is to linger steathily over hostile territory, a situation you would not want a human pilot in.

    The RQ-4 is expendable because you don’t need an unmanned aircraft to fly the kind of missions it supports, lingering over non-hostile airspace, the U2 does those just fine and the U2 support structure is already in place and efficient.

    Also, it seems that blimps can linger for much longer periods than the RQ-4 and at a much lower cost.

  • JRL

    So Dr Feelgoo… I mean, ‘Dr Loren Thompson actually thinks it’s a mistake to cut one of his paymaster’s underperforming cash cows for something that actually works?! What a shock!

    Here’s an idea for ya – How about DefenseTech say ‘Adios’ to the venal policy of presenting the self-serving marketing hype of paid industry shills like Thompson, Aboulifia, and Robbin ‘Look! Up in the sky! it’s Z-axis!’ Laird, as if it were actual news content.

    • ex-journo

      Can i get an Amen for that one from JRL

  • Lance

    Forget about the Drone Bring back the SR-71! the U-2 can be easily shot down by old SA-2, Bring back the plane any nation can’t shot down.

    I do think this is OK I prefer manned planes to drones since they are more flexible.

    • Atomic Walrus

      One of the reasons they retired the SR-71 was because the Soviets had started finding ways to shoot it down. Think SA-5 and all-points intercepts with MiG-31s. It also wasn’t being used for penetration of denied airspace – that had basically ended in the ’60s. The SR-71 was too easy to detect – huge IR signature, and despite the reduced radar cross-section, you weren’t going to confuse it with any other aircraft operating at 70,000 ft and Mach 3.

      • Lance

        Sorry your wrong though the SA 5 had to use a Nuclear warhead to shoot one down something that even the Soviets did not want to do China lacks those capabilities completely. The MiG-31 also has a great radar but lacks altitude and missile to engage a SR-71 like the F-14 the SR-71 fell victim to Then Sec Def Dick Cheney and his war on planes he did not like. The SR have been shot at by SA-2, 3, 5, and 6s over Cuba North Vietnam and North Korea and the Missiles failed to get that high in time to shoot it down. The U-2 is much easier to shoot down anyway.

    • blight

      The SR’s advantage is speed. If you only need it for surveillance and don’t expect to be attacked, the U-2 is your economical choice.

      The fighter variant would be nice to have…

      • Ryan

        The Skunkworks did a prototype of the Fighter on the A-12, the daddy to the SR-71 and the AF’s YF-12 Interceptor. It was a bit slower (different engine), but still a beast. You don’t ever see anything on the weaponized variant of this plane though. I think they did it just to see how feasible it was to build the YF-12.

        • Cthel

          The missile developed for the YF-12 is the ancestor of the AIM-54 phoenix; it also pioneered look-down/shoot-down radar and is the only aircraft to launch an air-to-air missile above mach 2.

          According to Ben Rich’s “Skunk Works”, the problem with the proposal was telling the airforce that they only needed one squadron of F-12s to cover the entire continental US against the Soviet Bomber threat. All the AF Fighter generals could see that if there was only one fighter squadron, they would either have to be in charge of bombers (the horror!) or be out of a job; at the same time, congress could see the lovely job-generating AF bases in their constituencies being shut down.

          Basically, they proposed something too good to get past the vested interests; and ended up paying the price.

          And that’s not even mentioning the proposed B-12 version…

          • William C.

            Never heard that story before. I recall reading that the F-12B was about to enter production as the USAF had just ordered about 90 aircraft. Yet before production stared Defense Secretary McNamara killed the program. He said Vietnam war costs were the issue, but he actually wanted the USAF to adopt an interceptor based on the F-111 instead.

            Given that choice, the USAF elected for no interceptor at all, although the F-106 Delta Dart would would serve on well into the ’80s.

  • what

    Global Hawk died for F-35’s sins.


    10 block 30 to finance 3 block 40? uuuugggg. Maybe I´m the only one to think like: GO HUMAN!!! BEAT THE DRONE!! HOOAA!

  • JJMurray

    Two things – First – I thought the Air Force was bound and determined to show the world that unmanned was better than manned and Second – If this is a budget cut, isn’t the RQ-4 significantly cheaper to operate than the U-2?
    Sounds to me like someone finally figured out that a guy holding the stick actually DOES work better than a remote control.

  • Dfens

    You can’t kill a cash cow! The defense contractors have spoken.

    • crackedlenses

      You can when the F-35 cash cow starts mooing its head off for more…..

      • Dfens

        So you can kill one cash cow for another? Hmm, maybe. But in this case they’re killing off a UAV for the cash cow that already killed off the SR-71. There’s a huge bureacracy built up around U-2 after so many years. That bureacracy doesn’t survive without soaking up a lot of cash.

  • JRL

    $1.2 B for THREE new and improved RC airpla.. I mean, ‘Blk 40 Global Hawks’.

    Real bang for the buck., there…

  • ptitz

    …Regardless of the large number of unmanned aircraft flying over Afghanistan, the vast number of Reaper strikes will likely mean that system will always be associated with the war in the region.

    Global Hawk backers may hope to make the case that it deserves similar status for the Iraq war, noting, for one, that it was there at the outset and was the last asset to leave Iraqi airspace when U.S. forces pulled out on Dec. 18.

    blog post photo
    (Photo: USAF/Master Sgt. Rob Donnelly)

    During the period, various Global Hawks logged 1,146 missions and 21,325.3 flight hours.

    Thirteen different Global Hawks were involved and they, too, tell a story of how long the operation unfolded and how things have changed. Operations began with a Global Hawk built for the advanced concept technology demonstration phase of the project. Block 10 Global Hawks were also used, and the operation closed with a Block 30 flying over the country. …

  • Michael Kraig

    I really don’t see why we don’t ask about the SR-71 again — it probably could be shot down now (??) with the latest Russian SAMs but certainly is far more survivable than either the slow U-2 or the slow and under-performing Global Hawk.

    To me, the question is not “manned” or “unmanned.” Rather, it is: how do we best do persistent, highly reliable, and stealthy ISR against near-peer competitors? Maybe the answer is manned, maybe unmanned. But what should drive the decision is the required capabilities. And off the top of my head, the SR-71 certainly seems like the best thing we have (or had….probably can’t be resurrected).

  • Fan

    I’m not sure where everyone is getting their facts. Global Hawk flies 24/7 in the AOR’s with no problem. It flies longer than any other platform and can stay on-station longer than any other platform. Does the system have some faults, yes, but nothing that can’t be corrected. This system was in testing phase when it was thrown into combat. So yes it’s going to cost more to maintain. Every time commanders want a new feature from it, it costs more, but it always met the commanders requirement. Look as it’s effors with Japan and Haiti. GH was on-station within hours. U2 took several weeks to prepare. Global Hawk has always been able to be on-station with any new conflict. U2 took time to prepare.

    People state that only the U2 can take wet film. Duhhh, just load the same camera onto a Global Hawk.

  • Jim

    UAV’s are a dime a dozen compared to manned aircraft and human lives. UAV’s can be made stealth as well as out perform manned aircraft. I believe that the Airforce and government want to have more hands on with what is actually being done in the fields now. I have manufactured UAV’s for the past 12 years and have seen many of the different versions released. I have had hands on with the Global Hawk as well as Predetor. Many companies have come and go involving UAV’s. Gov’t always choose the lowest bid’s. You get what you pay for. 90% of the avionics and payloads are usually COTS products labored to fit its needs. … With all this said and the bashing… I’m still for the UAV. Just choose wisely who fabricates and integrates. Many people don’t realize this but 80% of you commercial passenger jets are pilot equip’ed UAV’s. As long as the computer is programmed correctly by the pilot, the aircraft will take off, fly and land its self right on the center line of the runway. The pilot is there just in case there is a mishap or failure (US Air – Hudson River).