June 28, 2012: Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force cancelled existing orders for the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV and withdrew 18 from service. The Global Hawk manufacturer (Northrop Grumman) unleashed their lobbyists and political supporters on the air force, demanding an explanation for (and reversal of) the decision. The air force responded that the RQ-4 was too expensive and the manufacturer too unreliable. Moreover, reconnaissance mission requirements had changed with the withdrawal from Iraq. High altitude, long duration missions were not needed as much. And those that were needed were better served by using the smaller and cheaper Reaper. Missions normally carried out by the RQ-4 were now handled more efficiently and cheaply by the U-2, which could carry more sensors to higher altitudes. Northrop Grumman insisted it could mount any U-2 sensors on an RQ-4. The air force replied that this had not been their experience. Northrop Grumman would offer to make modifications which often went way over budget, took longer than specified, and often didn't work. The air force had been burned once too often by Northrop Grumman when it came to upgrades and fixes on the RQ-4.
Northrop Grumman still has plenty of other work from the air force and Global Hawk will remain in production. The U.S. Navy is buying 68 of the MQ-4C BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance) model. Actually, the air force is also interested in BAMS. While that may seem strange, it makes perfect sense if you understand the problems the air force has been having with the RQ-4. While the RQ-4 has always been hailed as a revolutionary and successful system, most of the recon and surveillance jobs in the last decade were handled by the more reliable and popular Predator and Reaper UAVs. Meanwhile, the air force was having endless problems with the RQ-4.
Increasingly, over the last decade the air force and the manufacturer of the RQ-4 found themselves feuding over design, cost, and quality control issues. The latest issue was the unreliability of the new Block 30 models. This renewed Department of Defense threats to cancel the program. But Northrop Grumman lobbyists have made sure the key members of Congress knew where Global Hawk components were being built and how many jobs that added up to. While that delayed the RQ-4 Block 30 cancellation it did not stop it. The air force was placated for a while when Northrop Grumman fixed some of the problems (some of which the manufacturer said don't exist, or didn't matter). The Block 30 was supposed to be good to go but the air force was not convinced and decided that Block 30 was just more broken promises. Congress was also tired of all the feuding and being caught between Northrup lobbyists and exasperated air force generals. Then there was politician's decision to cut the defense budget over the next decade. Something had to go.
Meanwhile, the manned U-2 has continued to operate as expected and, despite its age, with predictable costs. Moreover, the U-2 carries a larger load than the RQ-4 and that means it can do more when it is in the air. The U-2 also has its supporters in Congress. So the RQ-4 took a hit so the popular U-2 could keep flying for another decade or so.
You'd think the RQ-4 would be somewhat perfected by now. Development of the RQ-4 began in the 1990s, as a DARPA research project. But by 2006, per-aircraft costs were 25 percent over the original price. By 2007, production schedules had slipped as well. The air force and Northrop Grumman disagreed over what caused these problems. The air force blamed it on poor management. Northrop Grumman said it's all about dealing with complex technology. The air force pointed out that the RQ-4 was not high tech. The sensors often are but they are added to the aircraft after they came off the production line. Northrop Grumman continued to stonewall the air force and showed no signs of making any basic changes.
Things started off on a more promising note. The RQ-4 was still in development on September 11, 2001, but was rushed into action. The first production RQ-4A was not delivered until August, 2003. Although the RQ-4 could stay in the air for up to 42 hours all of them had only amassed about 4,000 flight hours by 2004. But most of those 4,000 hours, which were originally planned to involve testing of a new aircraft, were instead used to perform combat missions. Global Hawk also got to fly under difficult conditions, something an aircraft still being developed would not do.
Four years ago a RQ-4A Global Hawk made the first non-stop crossing of the Pacific, flying 12,000 kilometers from California to Australia in 23 hours. The Global Hawk has previously crossed the Pacific in several hops but it always had the endurance to do it non-stop. In the last decade RQ-4s have flown over 55,000 hours, most of that combat missions and many of them from Persian Gulf bases. The latest models can fly 20 hour missions, land for refueling and maintenance, and be off in four hours for another twenty hours in the sky. But the reliability issues with the Block 30 made the longer missions infrequent. Otherwise, the RQ-4 has been very reliable, with aircraft being ready for action 95 percent of the time. An RQ-4 can survey about 4,000 square kilometers an hour.
The U.S. Air Force had been buying them at the rate of five a year, at a cost of $35 million each for the basic aircraft. Include payload (sensors and communications) and development costs and it averages to over $120 million each. The B version is about ten percent larger (wingspan of 42.3 meters/131 feet and 15.5 meters/48 feet long) than the A model and can carry an additional two tons of equipment. To support that, there's a new generator that produces 150 percent more electrical power. The B version is a lot more reliable. Early A models tended to fail and crash at the rate of once every thousand flight hours, mostly because of design flaws. The first three RQ-4Bs entered service in 2006.
At 13 tons the Global Hawk is the size of a commuter airliner (like the Embraer ERJ 145) but costs nearly twice as much. Global Hawk can be equipped with much more powerful, and expensive, sensors than other UAVs. The spy satellite quality sensors (especially AESA radar) are usually worth the expense because they enable the UAV, flying at about 20,000 meters, to get a sharp picture of all the territory it can see from that altitude.
Because the U.S. Navy bought Global Hawks to perform maritime reconnaissance, Australia was encouraged to buy some as well, to monitor the vast stretches of ocean that surround the island continent. Germany has bought the RQ-4 and NASA uses two of them. But the U.S. Air Force is looking elsewhere, at least until the RQ-4, and its manufacturer, prove to be more reliable.
There has been plenty of competition for RQ-4 work. In addition to the manned U-2, there is a longer (42 hours) endurance version of the five ton Reaper as well as the jet powered version of the Reaper called Avenger. This aircraft can do 85 percent of what the RQ-4 can but costs half as much. Moreover, the Avenger is 29 percent faster, although it only has endurance of 20 hours, compared to 35 for the RQ-4. Most importantly, the Avenger and Reaper come from a manufacturer (General Atomics) that has been much more dependable than Northrop Grumman.