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Air Force plans drone upgrade to replace U-2 planes

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Air Force will spend $1.9 billion over 10 years upgrading Global Hawk drones to take over missions flown by U-2 surveillance planes starting in 2016, officials said.

The Lockheed U-2, which flew spy missions over the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is marked for retirement in the proposed 2015 Defense Budget, along with the A-10 close air support aircraft.

It’s a move that’s designed to save money in the long term but it will cost about a $1 billion extra over the next five years due to the cost of upgrading the Global Hawk to perform the U-2’s missions, officials said.

A major part of the upgrade involves moving sensors from the U-2 to the Global Hawk at a cost of about $500 million over the next few years, said a senior defense intelligence official who spoke on background.

“There are some capabilities on the U-2 that (combatant commanders) like that are not on the Global Hawk,” the official said.

These include a wet-film camera that can quickly photograph a vast area much faster than the digital sensors mounted on the Global Hawk, he said. The camera is used in Afghanistan and it is particularly useful for monitoring treaty compliance in the Middle East because its speed means there’s less chance of counting moving vehicles more than once, he said.

The other piece of gear moving to the Global Hawk is the world’s most advanced airborne electro-optical sensor. The device is capable of surveying seven parts of the spectrum, including visible and infrared light, he said.

The Air Force fleet of “Block 30” Global Hawks — which are designed to replace the U-2 — will grow from 17 to 21 this year, said Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Mary Danner-Jones. The Air Force has 10 more “Block 40” Global Hawks, which carry only one sensor — a powerful ground target tracking radar — and will receive one more in June, she said.

Compliance improvements for the Global Hawk, including viability and reliability, will cost $1.3 billion over the next decade. Total expected investment costs are expected to amount to $1.9 billion over that period, Danner-Jones said.

Until recently, officials had planned to keep the U-2 in service to save money in the near term. However, the likelihood that defense budgets will be constrained for years meant it’s more prudent to seek long-term savings, the intelligence official said.

Rough estimates suggest that replacing the U-2 with the Global Hawk will be cheaper in the long term, he said.

“It is not going to be in the next five to 10 years but we plan on keeping the Global Hawk a long time — it could be flying for 50 to 60 years,” he said.

In 2012, flying the Global Hawk or the U-2 cost roughly $32,000 per flight hour. However, by last year, the cost of flying the Global Hawk had dropped to $24,000 per flight hour, he said.

The program will cost $3.7 billion over the next five years, $500 million dollars more than it would have cost to keep flying the U-2, he said.

Ralph Cossa, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Hawaii said it makes sense for the U.S. invest in maintaining its technological edge in key areas.

“How much longer can you fly U-2s?” he asked, of the aircraft that entered service in 1955. “At some point it is going to cost you money just to keep them in the air.”

The U-2 became infamous in 1960 when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in one during a secret mission over what was then the Soviet Union, in an incident that became a huge diplomatic embarrassment for the United States. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Soviets shot down a U-2 over Cuba killing its pilot Maj. Rudolf Anderson.

robson.seth@stripes.com
 

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