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Delays and Rising Costs May Put Air Force’s Global Hawk High Flying Drone in Tailspin

by Greg on June 21, 2010

DOD Buzz’s Colin Clark reported late Friday that the Air Force’s top buyer, David Van Buren, in a rare on-the-record brief to reporters, said he is none too happy with the progress of Northrop Grumman’s high-altitude, long-endurance RQ-4 Global Hawk drone.

Global Hawk was meant to replace the iconic U-2 for long-endurance (more than 32 hours at a time) spy missions high over (up to 60,000 feet) unsuspecting nations, such as China and Iran, but program delays have kept the U-2 flying. The jet powered drone has been flying over Afghanistan snapping high-resolution images of IED emplacers or listening in on Taliban cell-phone conversations as there is such high demand there for drone coverage.

Now, because of delays, poorly performing sensors, and rising costs (GAO says $183 million per copy), the Global Hawk program is in jeopardy:

“Testing and delivery has been slower than expected,” Van Buren said of Block 30 of Global Hawk. “I am not happy with the pace of that program and we are not happy with the cost of the air vehicle.”

While Van Buren’s comments on Global Hawk weaved back and forth between Block 30 and 40 and the overall program, he made very clear he is not happy with the Global Hawk program overall.

A cost review has been ordered and should be ready by late summer, early fall. I asked Van Buren if Northrop Grumman’s program leadership was to blame and he declined to answer, saying he wanted data from the pending review before drawing conclusions about that.

Given how measured and careful Van Buren is, we checked around the building to get some sense of just how bad things are for Global Hawk. We heard from one well-placed source that the program could well be headed for death row unless things improve quickly and substantially.”

No word yet from the Navy which is developing a version of the RQ-4 for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) mission (one that some might argue is redundant with the Global Hawk).

– Greg Grant

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