House panel blocking Pentagon's retirement of Global Hawk drones

The bill would also “limit the use of funds” for the Pentagon to retire the Block 30s, which it had proposed in its 2013 budget. It says no funds could be used in 2013 to “retire, prepare to retire, or place in storage an RQ–4 Block 30 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft system.”

The Pentagon proposed retiring 18 of Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk Block 30 drones, one variant of the unmanned aircraft, which the Air Force said would save $2.5 billion over the next five years.

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The Air Force would instead rely on the manned U-2 aircraft as a replacement, even though the Block 30 drones were supposed to be a less expensive alternative drone.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said at a congressional hearing on the budget that the Block 30 drones were being retired because the service “couldn't justify the costs to improve the Block 30's sensors to achieve capability that already exists in the U-2.”

But the plan faced resistance in Congress, including in the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee, where ranking member Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) came to the aircraft's defense.

“I must tell you, putting the Global Hawk in a hangar is not acceptable to this member,” Dicks said at a March Air Force budget hearing. “I think we've got to find somewhere, whether it's NATO, SOCOM, the Navy, or somewhere, to use these Global Hawks.”

McKeon, during a hearing last month, also questioned the Pentagon's rationale for killing the Global Hawks, asking why the Air Force was going with the U-2 when a report had been released last year that said the program cost $220 million more per year to operate.

He asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz to explain why the service "chose to retain a plane that was flown by the grandparents of today's U-2 pilots, especially given that eight months ago, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition technology and logistics certified to Congress that the continuation of the Global Hawk program was essential to national security."