As the United States strikes the Islamic State from the air, the lack of boots on the ground and limited human intelligence has left the coalition almost entirely dependent on aerial surveillance to spot targets. The Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle is reportedly seeing a lot of action. However, the Air Force feels the Global Hawk is not be the best choice for that mission. Instead, they would rather be flying the U-2, which is a much older, manned aircraft. Unfortunately, the Air Force does not have a choice in the matter.
The Global Hawk was first developed by Northrop Grumman in 1998. The U-2 is a Cold War-era aircraft from Lockheed Martin. Both fly high-altitude surveillance. The Global Hawk was meant to be the “next generation” in surveillance due to the fact that it could operate without a pilot. But even after Northrop Grumman invested considerably in the development of the vehicle, the U-2 still holds some advantages over its successor. While the Global Hawk can stay airborne for significantly longer, has greater sensor capacity, and lower sustainment and support costs, the U-2 still has the edge in areas such as altitude-limit (70,000 ft. vs. 55,000-60,000 ft.), quality of camera equipment, and rate-of-climb.
But it was not until 2013, when sequestration forced budget cuts, that the Air Force had to choose. Congress favored the Global Hawk, while the Air Force made no secret of its preference for the U-2. Nevertheless, Congress holds this country’s purse strings, and is charged with appropriating the equipment the military uses to defend the nation, whether the military wants that equipment or not.
The Air Force’s Head of Air Combat Command, General Michael Hostage, has been the Air Force’s most outspoken proponent of the U-2. In a 2013 interview, Hostage said “It appears that I will be told I have to continue to purchase Global Hawks, and given the budget picture that we have, I cannot afford both the U-2 and the Global Hawk. What that means is that we are going to have to spend buckets of money to get the Global Hawk up to some semblance of capability that the U-2 currently has. It is going to cost a lot of money, and it is going to take time, and as I lose the U-2 fleet, I now have a high-altitude ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] fleet that is not very useful in a contested environment.”
Why would Congress, regardless of the wishes of Air Force leadership, choose the Global Hawk over the U-2? One reason is that production of the Global Hawk takes place, in one form or another, in 36 of the 50 states.
For better or worse, Global Hawk now has the job of aerial surveillance in the fight against ISIS. The Air Force reported that for the week of September 10 – 16, the Global Hawk fleet flew over 700 hours, providing intelligence crucial to air strikes. While this is the good news, there has been some bad news: the Air Force admitted that the Global Hawk may be vulnerable to cyber-attacks, requiring $34 million in upgrades to make it more resistant to hacking. Moreover, as General Hostage noted, it will take “eight years before it can meet 90 percent of the current capability of the U-2.”
Despite this deficiency, the Administration ordered three more Global Hawks in September, and cancelled additional spending on the U-2 in the FY2015 budget. The U-2 appears to have lost the battle, despite its superior ability to fight the war.
Sean Gleason, a former consultant to the Department of Defense, is a contributor to MilitaryEdge.org.