As previously reported, the Air Force wants to cut the Block 30 Global Hawks as part of their ongoing budget cuts. Since this budget is not yet official, only a proposal, Northrop Grumman is challenging their cancellation. Although the Air Force has reported that the aircraft cannot perform reliably, and that the U-2 fleet is now cheaper to maintain by at least an order of magnitude. As Flight Global reports, Northrop is maintaining that the USAF's methodology is flawed.
I understand why Northrop would want to fight this. Asian and European nations have expressed an interest in the GlobalHawk platform, and any negative press from the Air Force can negatively impact that expected procurement. However, I believe it when the Air Force says that the aircraft is having issues accomplishing its mission, and I also believe that their projections of costs are accurate. In my day job I work with UAS. They are a great tool for both tactical intelligence, and science acheivement. However, the cost of operating a small UAS per hour is equal to a larger general aviation aircraft (such as a BE-55). Therefore, the reported $4,000 difference between the U-2 and RQ-4 is believable. Additionally, the U-2 is bought and paid for several times over, whereas the RQ-4 is less than a decade old.
In my previous commentary, I only asserted that cutting a UAS capability is a bad idea. This was before I realized that this did not impact the Block 40 Global Hawk. The Block 40 Global Hawk is a much improved aircraft with a new sensor package, and designed to fit US Navy and Marines requirements as well as Air Force. This new capability increases interchangeability among the services and keeps costs down while allowing the US to maintain its UAS lead.
Northrop has every right to protest this sale, but the expected procurement of the now-inter-service Block 40 Global Hawk lessens the sting of this cut.