What Pacific Strategy? Pentagon Plans To Mothball Longest-Range Surveillance Drones

In a move that seems to contradict the Obama Administration’s recently announced Asia-Pacific strategy, the Pentagon has decided to mothball its longest-range surveillance drones and rely instead on shorter-range U-2 spy planes. The move is a victory for U-2 maker Lockheed Martin, which argues the U-2 has many more years of operational life remaining on its airframes and offers superior sensor performance due to a higher flight altitude. However, the Global Hawk far surpasses U-2 and other airborne surveillance systems in a facet of performance deemed crucial to the vast distances of the Pacific: endurance.

When the president and his defense team unveiled the new Asia-Pacific strategy on January 3rd, they emphasized the role of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems in policing the vast ocean that covers half the Earth’s surface. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has also repeatedly underscored the importance of unmanned aircraft in future military plans. Nonetheless, the Air Force offered up the most common variant of the Global Hawk — the so-called Block 30 — as a bill-payer in preparing the fiscal 2013 defense budget request, and senior officials have embraced that recommendation. The plan is to retire the Block 30s already in the force and terminate further production.

The decision may be couched in a proposal to equip the Air Force with a naval version of the Global Hawk being separately developed at some later date, but insiders say that idea is unlikely to be implemented in the current fiscal environment. Terminating the Air Force version now would also cause a big increase in the unit cost of the Navy variant, due to the loss of economies of scale. Insiders say the Air Force’s main motivation for killing Global Hawk is to save money, but that the service failed to conduct an “apples-to-apples” comparison of alternatives including all costs, and also did not credit Global Hawk with being more cost-effective due to its greater productivity.

Global Hawk is equipped with a variety of sensors that can collect optical, infrared and radio-frequency intelligence, including video of moving ground targets. Although it only recently achieved formal operational status, it has actually been in use in Southwest Asia supporting U.S. forces since 2001. The long endurance of the air vehicle allows it to monitor vast areas or stay airborne above targets of interest for over a day, beaming vital intelligence to friendly forces via a digital datalink. The U-2 has similar features, including sophisticated sensors that in some circumstances can outperform those on the Global Hawk. But it lacks the “legs” of Global Hawk, a feature that had been thought critical as the joint force shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific region. U-2 is now expected to remain active in the joint fleet until at least 2023.