This is the week that Pentagon policymakers begin sorting out how to assure that one of the military’s most important reconnaissance systems will be available to warfighters at an affordable price. The RQ-4 Global Hawk is an unmanned aircraft conceived to replace the venerable U-2 spy plane with a longer-endurance platform that could host a wider array of sensors. Prime contractor Northrop Grumman and sensor-package producer Raytheon have delivered the goods, but policymakers have not been happy about cost increases and some performance issues that arose in operational testing. So now a task force has been formed to recalibrate the program, but there’s little doubt that it will go forward.
Because Global Hawk triggered provisions of the Nunn-McCurdy law designed to limit cost growth in military systems, government analysts studied whether there were alternative, cheaper ways of meeting the reconnaissance requirements driving the program. There weren’t. Despite a rising price, Global Hawk remains the most cost-effective solution to future wide-area reconnaissance needs. That isn’t surprising, because no other recon system can cover as much ground or remain above targets of interest as long while collecting such a diverse array of information. The alternatives are either too far away (spy satellites), too limited in their endurance (U-2), or too small to carry the necessary payload (Predator). Global Hawk is a truly unique system — a versatile and responsive reconnaissance platform that one combat commander remarked was like having his very own spy satellite (only much closer to areas of interest).
The Global Hawk payload includes an imaging radar that can track moving surface targets from safe altitudes, and electro-optical and infrared sensors that can detect and characterize key details about potential enemies. Some versions also have the ability to monitor enemy communications and other radio-frequency transmissions. You could load all these capabilities onto a manned aircraft and get the same results, but it would cost a great deal more for planes that couldn’t stay aloft over targets anywhere near as long. The fact that no other military power in the world possesses anything remotely like the RQ-4 suggests it will be a key discriminator of operational success in future conflicts.
As major surveillance programs go, Global Hawk isn’t all that expensive — about $12 billion for five dozen planes plus associated ground equipment, not counting the cost of a separate Navy version being developed for long-range maritime surveillance. The Navy too conducted an analysis of alternatives and decided no other aircraft, manned or unmanned, was as well-suited to meeting its broad-area surveillance needs. Having performed thousands of combat sorties for the joint force, the RQ-4 has demonstrated its unique capacity to find and target elusive adversaries, so it is good to see policymakers acknowledging that it is indispensible. The task now is to reduce costs so that warfighters can get all the Global Hawks they need.
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