The Air Force's current plans for high-altitude surveillance, keeping the decades-old U-2 flying while upgrading the new RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, will not meet the demands of the military for reconnaissance, and the service needs to start again with a new aircraft to replace both spy plans, the head of Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works said.
The Air Force's fiscal 2016 budget request will keep the U-2 flying until 2019 while funding upgrades to the Global Hawk's sensor package to put the drone on par with the aging spy plane. The move will have the drone take over the spy plane's missions in full, though the differences in capabilities means that neither aircraft can really do the other's job.
"I ask myself, when will a program be initiated, which I think will be unmanned, to replace both and do the full set of missions accomplished by both the U-2 and the Global Hawk" said Rob Weiss, the executive vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin's advanced development programs, or Skunk Works, which originally designed the U-2.
Air Force officials have repeatedly said there is an ever-increasing demand for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance around the world. The service does not have enough operators, and is trying to upgrade its ISR fleet to keep up with demand.
"There is no opportunity to replace both of them based on current demand," Weiss said.
The Air Force had originally sought to cut it's brand-new Block 30 variants of the Global Hawk, saying the U-2 was more capable and had a cheaper cost per flight hour. The service flipped its position, and in the fiscal 2015 request tried to retire all of its U-2s, a move that Congress blocked. The compromise in the newest spending request looks to appease Congressional concerns and keep the spy plane in the air long enough to meet short-term demands of combatant commanders.
But the difference in capability will mean this plan could mean a shortfall in ISR capability, Weiss said. Northrop Grumman is developing a "universal payload adapter" to take the sensor suite from a U-2 and fix it to the drone. The $487 million project is expected to take three to four years to develop and test, according to an Air Force report to Congress.
There is technology advanced enough to be able to develop a new system to address the need for high-altitude surveillance, but now it's an issue of funding and deciding to move forward.
"The technology is out there today," Weiss said.
The Air Force is still in the process of accepting the Block 30 variant of the Global Hawk, with updated Block 40 versions reaching initial operating capability this year. The service flies 33 of the drones.
The Air Force also flies 33 U-2s. The move to retire the aircraft was "not the optimum military solution," the former head of Air Combat Command retired Gen. Mike Hostage said before leaving his position in September.
"This is about balance, I have no choice but to sacrifice the U-2," Hostage said. "But the problem is Global Hawk will take eight years before it can meet 90 percent of the current capability of the U-2. [Combatant commanders are] going to suffer for eight years, and the best they're going to get is 90 percent."