Pentagon testers slam aerial spy drone as unfit for operations

The Air Force’s Global Hawk aerial drone is not suitable for operations, according to a scathing Pentagon report obtained by The Hill.

The report by the Pentagon’s top weapons tester found that the latest version of the spy plane, known as the “Block 30,” was “not operationally effective” in conducting the kinds of “near-continuous” intelligence-gathering missions envisioned in initial service plans for the unmanned aircraft.

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The May 2011 report is a blow for the aerial drone manufactured by Northrop Grumman, but analysts expect the program will survive.

The drone is a remotely piloted spy plane that can fly at high altitudes — up to 60,000 feet — to evade easy detection. Its primary role is to take pictures, while also picking up enemy communications signals and electronic signals like those from a nuclear detonation.

Analyst Philip Finnegan of the Teal Group said criticism of the program could make it vulnerable to budget cuts given the timing of the report, which comes as the Pentagon is under pressure to cut costs.

“Obviously this is another setback for the program, which has suffered from criticism about its cost and overall schedule performance,” Finnegan said.

The Pentagon’s testing and evaluation office that produced the report has estimated the Global Hawk’s price at $8.6 billion. Some independent cost estimates are even larger.

The report found that the drones provided only about 40 percent of “requested intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) coverage when used at low operational tempos.”

A subsystem fitted onto the Block 30s that is designed to gather intelligence signals, such as communications or electronic signals given off from radioactive events, “provides ... limited operational utility” at detecting, identifying and locating some radar and communications signals, the report said.

That same system — due to “technical performance deficiencies and immature training, tactics, techniques and procedures” — fails to provide “actionable” signals on intelligence, the testing shop found.

For those and other reasons, Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation, deemed the Block 30 variant “not operationally suitable.”

The Air Force has purchased 16 Block 30 Global Hawks and plans to buy a total of 42. It expected to spend $3 billion on the remaining drones.

The service wants to buy three of those in fiscal 2012, and sought $485 million for that procurement in its budget request. That puts the price per model at around $161 million.

The Global Hawk program has battled cost increases and technical issues for years, but has avoided scorn from a large number of lawmakers. 

In the study, Gilmore concluded the drone failed to give war fighters what they need from it the most: a high-flying platform that can gather ISR data for extended periods of time.

“Global Hawk long endurance flights do not routinely provide persistent ISR coverage due to low air vehicle reliability,” the Gilmore-signed report states.

“We are working closely with the Air Force to ensure Global Hawk meets its cost and capability requirements,” a Northrop Grumman spokesman said Monday. “Global Hawks have been deployed since November 2001, flying missions in five theaters today supporting military and disaster-relief operations around the globe. These airframes have consistently performed as designed and continue to provide valuable information for the nation’s commanders in the field.”

The report is the second blow this year for the broader unmanned aircraft program, which includes a newer variant called the Block 40. The Air Force, in its 2012 budget plan, revealed plans to halve its planned 22-plane Block 40 purchase. That moved freed up hundreds of millions for things like additional satellites and rockets

The Global Hawk’s Block 30 performance standards mean it is widely considered the successor to the venerable U-2 spy plane. A senior Northrop Grumman official told trade publication Flightglobal.com last year that the variant is the “backbone of long-endurance high-altitude reconnaissance for the United States Air Force.”

Finnegan noted the kind of unmanned aerial vehicles the U.S. military has used in targeting al Qaeda leaders in austere locations in Afghanistan and inside Pakistan also once were the target of Pentagon testers’ criticism.

“The Predator/Reaper suffered from serious criticisms from testers early on, but it came back and is now very effective and I would anticipate the Global Hawk will solve its problems,” he said. “The criticism of the Global Hawk focused on operational availability rather than the effectiveness of the system.”

Winslow Wheeler, a longtime congressional defense aide now with the Center for Defense Information, agreed that the Global Hawk program likely will continue as planned.