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EXCLUSIVE: Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk drones headed for the boneyard in FY27

An RQ-4 Global Hawk from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam is towed down the taxiway at Misawa Air Base, Japan, May 24, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Nathan Lipscomb)

WASHINGTON: The RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone’s days are numbered, as the US Air Force plans to phase out all remaining air vehicles by fiscal 2027, Breaking Defense has learned.

Breaking Defense has obtained a June 27 letter from an Air Force Life Cycle Management Center contracting officer, which informed prime contractor Northrop Grumman of the sunset date for the Global Hawk Block 40 — the most modern version of the RQ-4 used by the service to collect surveillance and track ground targets.

“Northrop Grumman shall base their DMS [diminishing manufacturing source] and Life Cycle Management plans with the expectation that the entire USAF Global Hawk fleet will reach its end of life in 2026,” the contracting officer wrote.

In response to questions, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek confirmed the service plans to divest its nine Global Hawk Block 40 drones, but clarified that the plan is to shut down the drone fleet in FY27, not FY26 as the letter states, to make way for more survivable surveillance technologies.

“Our ability to win future high-end conflicts requires accelerating investment in connected, survivable platforms and accepting short-term risks by divesting legacy ISR assets that offer limited capability against peer and near peer threats,” Stefanek said in a statement. (Northrop Grumman declined to comment.)

After almost a decade where the Air Force unsuccessfully attempted to mothball its entire Global Hawk fleet — or alternatively, the U-2 spyplane that also conducts high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance — the service has recently been allowed by Congress to begin divesting its older-model RQ-4s.

Its four remaining Global Hawk Block 20s were divested in October and are now used to test hypersonic missiles as part of the Pentagon’s Sky Range program, according to a news release published by Sen. John Hoeven, R-ND, last year. The 20 Block 30 aircraft have already begun being retired, and are set to be removed from service with the Air Force by 2023, Stefanek said.

Of course, while the Air Force may be planning to retire its Block 40 aircraft in FY27, the service has a long history of being stymied in its attempts to divest older systems. Ultimately, Congress will make the final call on whether to retire the Global Hawk, which lawmakers may be unwilling to do if the loss of the platform leaves open a capability gap. Even if retirement is allowed to go ahead, the date could change depending on budgetary pressures or current threats.

Capability Gap Risks

The Air Force has been skeptical of the RQ-4 for about a decade, first trying to retire its Global Hawk fleet in FY13. At the time, service leaders claimed it would be too expensive to upgrade the RQ-4 Block 30’s sensors to achieve parity with the U-2, which it intended to operate in place of the Global Hawk.

After that effort failed, the Air Force attempted the opposite tactic as part of its FY15 budget proposal, trying to retire its U-2 fleet and having the Global Hawks take over the high-altitude surveillance mission. After Congress beat down that proposal, the Air Force allowed both platforms to quietly coexist for a couple years, before successfully getting permission from Congress to divest its Global Hawk Block 20 and Block 30 aircraft in FY21.

Meanwhile, the Navy has remained committed to the maritime version of the Global Hawk, the MQ-4C Triton. It plans to buy three MQ-4Cs in FY23 after congressional adds and foreign military sales kept the production line alive during FY21 and FY22.

Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, said it will be important for the Air Force to retain its Block 40 drones “as a stopgap” while it phases out its E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) planes. The service plans to retire eight of its 12 JSTARS aircraft in FY23, with the rest of the fleet likely to be divested in subsequent years.

That would leave the Global Hawk Block 40 drones — which are outfitted with a synthetic aperture radar with a ground moving target indicator (GMTI) mode — to track mobile troops on the ground until the Air Force fields systems that can do the mission with a much lower risk of being shot down by enemy missiles. 

“I think, in many ways, the Air Force is right: This is not a survivable platform if you were in war with a country that has advanced air defenses,” Pettyjohn said. “But really, none of our ISR platforms are. … It points to one of the overall limitations and our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance portfolio of aircraft.”

So what will ultimately fill the Global Hawk’s shoes?

“It’s not really a one-for-one trade. They’re not building a new system that’s replacing all the functionality of JSTARS or the Global Hawks,” Pettyjohn said. Rather, the service is taking a more “composite” approach that could stitch together sensor data gathered from tactical fighters like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or satellites that have been outfitted with GMTI sensors.

In 2021, Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond revealed a previously classified effort to develop satellites capable of tracking ground troops from space to help replace JSTARS. The Space Force is also considering asking commercial satellite providers to host sensors that could provide ISR data, Breaking Defense reported earlier this month.

Pettyjohn pointed out that Air Force officials have also alluded to a penetrating ISR system — making it possible that the service is working on a classified spyplane like the RQ-180 that could secretly replace high-altitude surveillance aircraft like the Global Hawk and U-2.

“The RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk was crucial to the ISR requirements of yesterday and today. However, this platform cannot compete in a contested environment. And tomorrow’s conflicts will be contested,” Air Force leaders, including Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown and Raymond, stated in written testimony to Congress in May 2021.

“Moving beyond this platform allows us to bring the ISR enterprise into the digital-age by using sensing grids and fielding advanced technology that includes penetrating ISR platforms,” the leaders stated in the testimony, adding that RQ-4 Block 30 divestment would allow the Air Force to repurpose funding needed for penetrating ISR capability. “Overall, intelligence collection will transition to a family of systems that includes non-traditional assets, sensors in all domains, commercial platforms, and a hybrid force of 5th- and 6th-generation capabilities.”

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