Northrop Grumman, the makers of RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone, which was almost retired just two years ago, is set to be awarded a $4 billion contract by the U.S. Air Force to sustain and modernize the fleet over the next five years. The Air Force had planned to cut the unmanned aircraft from the fleet in 2013, but now Northrop’s spy drone will be funded until 2020, and the longtime workhorse of American air reconnaisance, the Lockheed Martin U-2 ultrahigh-altitude manned spy plane, may be retired in 2019.
“The airplane and system is lobbying for itself,” said Northrop’s director of global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, John VanBrabant. "This is a reliable system doing good things for the Air Force.” Data compiled by Bloomberg in 2012 showed that drones including the RQ-4 were the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force, crashing at three times the rate of manned aircraft. But the Global Hawk's remarkable altitude and range capabilities -- it can fly nonstop for almost 9,000 miles (14,000 kilometers) at 60,000 feet (18,000 meters) -- as well as its ability to carry a vast array of sensors have made it a very useful platform for the U.S. military, saving it form possible retirement.
While the Air Force has made the plans, the Senate and House Armed Services Committees still have the power to reverse that decision, as they have consistently done over the past few years in other cases, for instance, when saving the A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft from retirement. However, it's unlikely that the decision to keep and fund the Global Hawk will be reversed, given that Congress blocked the RQ-4’s retirement plan in 2013 and managed to restore full funding for the program in last year’s defense budget after it was partially cut in previous years. It’s yet to be seen, however, what Congress will do about plans to ditch the 50-year-old U-2 aircraft in 2019. While old, the legendary U-2 -- which has been a fixture in the public imagination since one was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 in one of the Cold War's most famous incidents -- has played a relevant part in many recent conflicts by gathering photographic and signals intelligence.
For the RQ-4, cost overruns and price-per-unit increases from $61 million to $222.7 million had previously forced the Air Force to cut the original order back from 63 to 45 in January 2012. Then in 2013, the Air Force proposed mothballing 21 of the aircraft, but the service's chief of staff later ordered it to keep flying.
If approved, the $4 billion contract may allow Northrop to deliver the final three of the original order, plus carry out modifications to the existing fleet of 42.
The contract will cover the fiscal years from 2016 to 2020. According to an Air Force justification and approval document from May 8, it would have taken about four years and cost between $300 million and $500 million to have another contractor take over the Northrop contract.