A new version of Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Global Hawk drone is “not operationally effective for conducting near-continuous, persistent” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions that it was designed to conduct, according to the Pentagon’s top weapons tester.
The RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 30 was capable of providing only about 40 percent of requested coverage when flying two or three sorties a week, using three aircraft, during a testing period from October through December, according to the May 27 report signed by J. Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation.
The system “is not operationally suitable,” the report states. “Global Hawk long endurance flights do not routinely provide persistent ISR coverage due to low air vehicle reliability.”
“Mission-critical components fail at high rates, resulting in poor takeoff reliability, high air abort rates, low mission capable rates, an excessive demand for critical spare parts and a high demand for maintenance support,” the report said.
The Air Force has bought 16 of 42 planned Block 30 drones, designed to take detailed ground pictures from high altitudes and to collect signals intelligence. The remaining 26 drones would cost about $3.08 billion, David Van Buren, the Air Force’s senior acquisition executive, said in a previous interview.
The test report was needed before approval of full production. The Pentagon had scheduled a production meeting for this month.
“We are working with our customer on a coordinated response and have no immediate comment,” Brandon R. “Randy” Belote, vice president of strategic communications for Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman.
Another Northrop Grumman spokeswoman, Margaret Mitchell-Jones, said the company would not address specifics but was working with the Air Force “to ensure Global Hawk meets its costs and capability requirements.”
An Air Force spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jack Miller, said the test results “will help the Air Force and Northrop Grumman implement the improvements that will increase Global Hawk’s value.”
Used Over Libya
Initial Block 30-models have flown over the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan to gather thermal images, which were shared with the Japanese. They have also flown ground-surveillance missions over Libya.
Still, “I’m afraid this is the latest in a litany of less than glowing commentary on the Global Hawk,” said Robert Stallard, a defense analyst with RBC Capital Markets.
“I remember when unmanned aerial vehicles like this were pitched as being cheaper and more effective than manned platforms. Now the DoD appears to be saying that this is not the case in either situation, which I’d say is a real disappointment for Northrop,” Stallard said. This is their major UAV platform, after all.’’
The average cost of a Global Hawk has risen more than 25 percent. The current procurement cost -- exclusive of research, development and base construction -- is $113.9 million, up from $90.8 million in 2000 dollars, according to service figures. When research, development and construction of facilities are factored in, the cost is $173.3 million per aircraft; the comparable cost in 2000 dollars is $150 million.
The report highlights deficiencies with the plane’s airframe and sensor equipment. Frequent failures of “mission-critical” components -- the electrical generator, navigational unit and adhesives used to secure nut plates -- resulted in delayed takeoffs or canceled missions, according to the document.
The Enhanced Imagery Sensor Suite, or EISS, made by Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co., provides data that meet or exceed most operational requirements for imagery intelligence, while the Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload, or ASIP, made by Northrop, doesn’t consistently deliver actionable signal intelligence, according to the report.
The inability of the aircraft to conduct persistent operations “is not a permanent condition,” and can be mitigated if the Air Force takes “strong corrective actions” on the reliability issues identified by the Pentagon, according to the document.
The report includes 16 recommendations to improve the operational effectiveness and suitability of the aircraft, including upgrading communication systems, developing de-icing systems to boost all-weather capabilities and improving operator training programs for the ASIP sensor.
“In the interim, operational commanders should anticipate low air vehicle mission capable rates, spare part shortages, and a heavy reliance on system contractor support to sustain operations,” the report says.
“The high demand for maintenance often exceeds Air Force maintenance unit capabilities,” it says.