Following criticism, official says spy plane costs are dropping

An Air Force official said the service has slashed by 10 percent the costs to use its Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, a revelation that comes weeks after senators sharply questioned the price to operate the spy plane fleet.
 
The costs of operating the unmanned aircraft “are coming down,” Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Thomas, the service’s Global Hawk functional manager, told The Hill on Wednesday at a Washington conference. When pressed, Thomas said officials have wrung up to 10 percent from the Global Hawk program’s operating costs.
 

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Thomas questioned the Pentagon’s own initial cost estimates for the program.
 
“It’s a complex system and we’re not always sure how much it’s going to cost,” he said. “For example, in 2002, it was supposed to cost $10 million a copy — but no one knows where that number came from. Somebody said, ‘It was supposed to cost $10 million,’ and we went back and tried to find out who said that. There was no rigor, no data behind that.

“Already, the costs are starting to come down as we realize what it takes to operate it, what things are more reliable. The [people involved with the] U-2 [have] had many, many years to figure [that] out.”
 
The new cost projection comes just weeks after the Senate Armed Services Committee slammed the price of the Global Hawk program. The declaration also comes as the Pentagon is looking for ways to find $350 billion in savings over a decade, while bracing for the possibility of nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the same period.

The Senate panel’s version of 2012 defense authorization legislation proposes blocking the Air Force from retiring any U-2 spy aircraft until the Pentagon acquisition chief “certifies that the operating and sustainment … costs for the Global Hawk are less than the ... costs for the U–2 on a comparable flight-hour cost basis,” according to a report accompanying the bill.
 
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 communication signals and electronic signals such as those from a nuclear detonation.
 
It is expected to completely replace the military’s U-2 spy aircraft fleet in a few years.
 
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 Block 30s in fiscal 2012, and sought $485 million for that procurement in its budget request. That puts the price per model at around $162 million.
 
The Air Force, in its 2012 budget plan, announced plans to halve its planned 22-plane Block 40 purchase. That move freed up hundreds of millions of dollars for such things as additional satellites and rockets.
 
According to a report from the Senate committee, Pentagon data show “the average hourly cost per flight hour of the Global Hawk is approximately $35,000 as compared to a cost of approximately $31,000 for the U–2.”
 
The costs associated with personnel for a mission performed by the unmanned plane are “substantially higher” than those of the manned U-2 spy aircraft — “despite the fact that the number of flight hours for the Global Hawk, and the number of aircraft, are substantially below those of the U–2,” the committee wrote.
 
When pressed by The Hill, Thomas said the Global Hawk’s operating costs have come down by “5 [percent] to 10 percent” in recent months as the Air Force has deployed it and learned how best to use it.
 
“For a billion-dollar program, that’s significant,” Thomas said.
 
But after numerous breaches of program cost projections that have been revised repeatedly, should such declarations from Pentagon officials about the unmanned aerial vehicle program be believed? 

“This is precisely the kind of assertion and promise that should be the subject of independent audit and/or evaluation by an agency like [the Government Accountability Office], which has access to data records in DOD,” Winslow Wheeler, a former Senate staffer now with the Center for Defense Information, said Thursday. “Until then, the promise should be understood as from an interested party.”
 

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Wheeler suggested the Pentagon’s internal program-cost-evaluation shop examine Thomas’s revised figures, but he warned that the office “need[s] to be audited and evaluated by outsiders, as well.”
 
The Pentagon’s testing and evaluation office in a recent report also highlighted the Global Hawk program’s price tag, saying its overall cost is $8.6 billion. Some independent cost estimates are even larger.
 
A Northrop Grumman official deferred a question about Thomas’s savings projections to the Air Force. But he said there is an ongoing effort between the prime contractor and the air service to cut the price.
 
The firm “remains committed to reducing costs on the Global Hawk program,” George Guerra, a vice president with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said Thursday in an email. “Working closely with the [Air Force], we continue to evaluate nearly 200 initiatives for potential savings.
 
“These initiatives span all aspects of the program including development, production and sustainment. The joint [Northrop-Air Force] team will be conducting an affordability workshop this month as we work together to achieve additional savings for the program.”
 
Meanwhile, the Senate panel warned that the Northrop Grumman-built Global Hawk’s operating costs could climb even higher as the Air Force introduces two new versions of the UAV with new intelligence-gathering and radar systems.
 
The committee is worried these same kinds of costs will show up when the Navy rolls out its Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned spy plane, which is a derivative of the Global Hawk aircraft.
 
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s bill would require Air Force and Navy officials to fashion and deliver to lawmakers a plan to pare Global Hawk and BAMS operating costs. That is due to Congress on April 1.