May 2, 2012: Once more the U.S. Air Force finds itself in a dispute with politicians over which aircraft to buy. This is an old story, with Congress often ordering the purchase of aircraft the air force does not want. This is usually done via aircraft manufacturers persuading enough legislators that the jobs lost if a certain aircraft is not bought could jeopardize reelection. The aircraft manufacturers are dealing with multi-billion dollar deals here, and that kind of money (in the form of grateful voters and campaign contributions) can overrule the expert opinions of air force generals.
This time around it's all about air force dissatisfaction with the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV. Earlier this year the air force decided to sell off 18 recently acquired RQ-4 Block 30 UAVs. The air force wants to raise cash to buy the new F-35 fighter-bomber and selling off (rather than mothballing) unneeded aircraft seems the way to go. Some Global Hawks will remain in service, in the hope that the manufacturer will get their act together. The manufacturer had other ideas.
The Global Hawk is about more than a need for cash. Earlier this year the air force stopped buying the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV. Ten of the 31, Block 30 models ordered were cancelled. None of the planned Block 40 aircraft will be built. For the past few years the air force and the RQ-4 manufacturer (Northrop Grumman) have been feuding over design, cost, and quality control issues. The latest issue was the unreliability of the new Block 30 models. The air force finally made good on its threats. While the air force is unhappy with the latest RQ-4 designs, the U.S. Navy and foreign nations are not. There is plenty of demand. But the air force has the most experience with the RQ-4 and other users are aware of the U.S. Air Force experience.
The air force plans to use manned U-2 aircraft for strategic reconnaissance until a more reliable large UAV can be found. That might be an RQ-4 that meets air force requirements, but at the moment the air force is on very bad terms with Northrop Grumman. No matter, Northrop Grumman is on better terms with the members of Congress that determine how much money the air force gets and how it is spent.
When it comes to military spending there is always an irresistible temptation to pay someone off (in some cases, legally) to get your weapon, or service, accepted. Unlike commercial goods determining which weapon is superior is much more difficult and often impossible. So the weapons manufacturers have long since learned that a few well-placed bribes or favors will do the trick. This is an ancient practice and there are documented cases of it going back thousands of years.