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Analyst: Drone no longer in Air Force plans to replace U-2 spy plane

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Air Force wants to save money by scrapping plans to replace the Cold War-era U-2 spy plane with the high-tech Global Hawk reconnaissance drone, a defense analyst said Tuesday.

Loren Thompson wrote in his blog that the Air Force plans to sacrifice the most common variant of the Global Hawk — the Block 30 — as a “bill payer” in its 2013 budget request, retiring those already in use and halting further production by defense giant Northrup Grumman.

In addition, Bloomberg News reported that an unnamed U.S. official said the Pentagon has accepted an Air Force recommendation to reduce its purchases of the Block 30 and shift money to continued operations and maintenance of the high-altitude U-2 manned reconnaissance aircraft, which first entered service in the mid-1950s.

The long-distance, high-altitude Global Hawk has been used extensively in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan to feed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information to armed drones such as the Predator and Reaper.

An example of the military’s growing fleet of remote-controlled aircraft, the Global Hawk for years has been touted as the replacement for the traditionally piloted U-2 spy plane, known for its intelligence-gathering prowess over the skies of Russia during the Cold War. The Global Hawk can fly longer and higher than the U-2 — considered by some to be crucial advantages as the U.S. seeks to re-assert military power in the vast expanses of the Asia-Pacific region.

But the drone program has been criticized for being too expensive and too experimental.

While the Air Force is halting plans to use the Block 30 Global Hawks, the Navy recently announced an $11 billion plan to buy 68 of the Block 30s and equip them with the service’s own equipment, known as the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance system. The U.S. has reportedly deployed a BAMS aircraft to monitor the Strait of Hormuz in recent weeks after Iran threatened to block the oil export route.

Thompson, Chief Operating Officer of the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, said a proposal to equip the Air Force with the Navy’s version of the Global Hawk is under consideration.

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The Air Force currently operates three Global Hawks in the Pacific from a base on Guam. Walt Kreitler, Northrop’s director of business development for the new drone, told Stars and Stripes earlier this year that the Navy plans to base four of its BAMS aircraft on Guam in the next few years.

The drone can carry long-range and infrared cameras, radar and listening devices that can intercept foreign military signals, particularly useful for tracking China’s military.

This week’s decision by the Air Force is ostensibly part of Defense Department-wide efforts to cut $450 billion in spending over the next decade, though it is unclear how much savings will be realized by scrapping plans to replace the U-2 with the Global Hawk. The New York Times reported in August that the Air Force had cut planned production of the Global Hawk from 77 to 55, which, in turn, bumps up the price tag for each plane to $218 million, including the cost of the sensor packages and research and development.

The U.S. also has been working on proposals to sell the Global Hawk to allies such as South Korea. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged NATO members in October to support a proposal to jointly purchase Global Hawks at a “true bargain.”

Read Thompson’s blog at: http://tinyurl.com/7f3r5de

reedc@pstripes.osd.mil

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