By Christopher Drew
Published: 2 August 2011
PALMDALE, Calif. — Tucked away here in the Mojave Desert, the assembly plant for the high-flying Global Hawk jet resembles a giant hobby shop.
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Work tables surround a handful of fuselages, and an unusually long wing — needed to slip through the thin air at 60,000 feet — is ready to be bolted into place. Open panels await controls for cameras and eavesdropping gear, and bright blue tool bins and parts vats are scattered around the concrete floor.
Just 50 people work in the factory and a test hangar, and only five of the drones will be built this year. But despite a spate of delays, second-guessing and cost overruns, the Global Hawk is once again on track to replace one of America’s most noted aircraft: the U-2 spy plane, famed for its role in the cold war and more recently Afghanistan.
The Air Force decided last month to stick with its $12 billion Global Hawk program, betting that the unmanned drone can replicate the aging U-2’s ability to sweep up a broad mix of intelligence from commanding heights, and do it more safely and for much longer stretches than the piloted U-2. The Navy is also onboard, with plans to spend $11 billion on a version that could patrol vast ocean areas.
The continued push for the Global Hawk reflects how drones are changing warfare and how critical high-altitude spying can be in any type of fight. Still, the program remains ensnared in military politics and budget battles, and the aircraft itself awaits some important technical changes that could slow its unveiling. In particular, creating the new models and their high-tech sensors, which can cost more than the planes, has been difficult.
And in an era in which remotely piloted planes are seen as relatively cheap and easy solutions, the Global Hawk has become the Escalade of drones, the gold-plated one that nearly broke the bank.
“The Global Hawk is a very impressive product, but it is also a very expensive product,” said Richard L. Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group, a consultancy in Fairfax, Va. “Those U-2s were paid for a long time ago.”
Since 2001, the cost of the Air Force program has more than doubled, and the service recently cut its planned fleet of Global Hawks to 55 from 77. That lifted the total estimate for each plane, including the sensors and all the research and development, to $218 million, compared with $28 million for the Reaper, the largest armed drone.
Pentagon tests also suggested last fall that the new Air Force model was not reliable enough to provide sustained surveillance. Parts failed frequently, and the equipment for intercepting telephone and radio conversations, a vital requirement for replacing the U-2, had trouble pinpointing the source of the calls.
Pentagon officials and executives at Northrop Grumman, which is building the Global Hawk, say they are trimming costs and replacing the faulty parts. Since March, commanders have rushed nine of the planes into use over Japan, Libya and Afghanistan, and they say they have done a good job in taking images of the earthquake damage in Japan and bombing targets in the war zones.
But analysts say the biggest test — and perhaps the next step in the shift from manned to robotic aircraft — will come if Northrop can field enough Global Hawks with better eavesdropping gear to make the commanders feel comfortable about retiring the U-2.
That transition was originally supposed to happen this year. Edward A. Walby, a business development director at Northrop, said the company now expected to have enough Global Hawks in the air by the end of 2012. That would give the Air Force time to check them out before phasing out the 32 U-2s by 2015.
But even that could change. Congress has said it will not approve any shift that would leave significant intelligence gaps. Mr. Aboulafia, the aviation analyst, said cuts in the military budget could also slow the transition. And critics of the military’s contracting practices say that instead of revamping the Global Hawk project, the Pentagon should have tabled it until all the technology was ready.