March 04, 2014      

The Pentagon’s 2015 budget is out, and so is the long-serving U-2 spy plane. In service since the 1950s, the U-2 is being replaced by Northrup Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 30 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), representing a significant shift in the U.S. Air Force’s attitude towards UAVs.

This move represents ?a huge socio-technological leap more than a technological one,? says Missy Cummings, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University and a visiting professor at MIT.

?It goes against the very identity of the Air Force to relinquish piloting roles to computers. [?] The Air Force has really struggled psychologically with the rise of drones, and the internal debates to kill or severely cut back drone programs like the Global Hawk have been fierce,? says Cummings, one of the United States Navy’s first female fighter pilots.

?I see this move as a huge leap ahead for the Air Force in terms of maturity, for lack of a better word, and finally accepting the inevitable. [?] This should have happened about five years ago, but better late than never.?

Global Hawk lands in Guam

The Global Hawk’s mission is the quintessential dull, dirty, and dangerous mission, adds Cummings. ?This is finally a public recognition that there are some missions unquestionably performed better by drones, in terms of safety, cost and mission performance.?

Reducing Global Hawk Costs

It’s quite a turnaround in fortunes for the makers of Global Hawk – a UAV platform for unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions (ISR). A 2011 Pentagon report found the drone was ?not operationally effective for conducting near-continuous, persistent? ISR missions. The report also noted the average cost of a Global Hawk had increased by 25 percent to $113.9 million.

The Pentagon’s 2013 budget proposal would have retired the drones and kept the U-2 program, which has been in place since the 1950s, but Congress blocked that proposal.

However, in a budget preview Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the decision was a close call. “[The Department of Defense] (DoD) had previously recommended retaining the U-2 over the Global Hawk because of cost issues,” Hagel said. “But over the last several years, DoD has been able to reduce the Global Hawk’s operating costs. With its greater range and endurance, the Global Hawk makes a better high-altitude reconnaissance platform for the future.”

According to Defense News, the cost per flying hour for the Global Hawk has decreased from about $32,000 in fiscal 2013 to $24,000 in fiscal 2013, while cost per flying hour on the U-2 has been stable for years at around $32,000. The report didn’t have an estimate on the Global Hawk for fiscal 2014, but it says the decrease in cost, according to an Air Force spokeswoman, is that as the “Global Hawk is flying more, the service is finding more efficiencies in areas such as supply chain and maintenance.”

The process of upgrading the Global Hawk continues, with President Obama setting aside $10 million in the fiscal 2014 omnibus appropriations bill (pdf) to study whether the U-2?s sensors can be incorporated on the Global Hawk.

This is an extremely positive move, says Jerry LeMieux, executive director and founder of Unmanned Vehicle University and a retired Air Force colonel. ?The U-2 is over 40 years old and in need of replacement. The Global hawk has twice the endurance and does not require a human pilot. […] Imagine being a pilot in an aircraft for an 18 hour mission – a very difficult task indeed.?

U-2 Spy Plane flight

Any capability loss can easily be fixed with upgrades to the Global Hawk, says LeMieux. And although the U-2 flies at a higher altitude, enabling a wider field of view at any given moment, the Global Hawk can stay in air much longer, allowing a even wider area to be surveyed.

?During the Vietnam War, we had 50,000 combat casualties. During the Global War on Terror – a similar period of 13 years – we lost only 5,000. This is directly related to the military benefits [of drone technology],? says LeMieux.

International Impact

The international market for UAVs is forecasted to more than double to $11.6 billion over the next decade from current UAV expenditures of $5.2 billion, totaling just over $89 billion in the next ten years, according to market analysts Teal Group Co.

Northrop has been trying to diversify outside of the U.S. due to decreasing military budgets and a growing international UAV market. Loosening of U.S. government drone export restrictions has attracted interest in the Global Hawk from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia.

Northrop Grumman would not comment on how the move may impact its international expansion plans.

A company spokesperson e-mailed a brief statement in response to the Pentagon’s budget, simply acknowledging ?recognition from the Administration, Congress, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force of the RQ-4 Global Hawk’s value as the most affordable and capable airborne ISR asset? and reiterating its dedication to the Global Hawk program.

Opposition Exists

When the 2015 budget proposal was released in Feb. 2014, there was plenty of opposition against the Global Hawk. U.S. Congressman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) described the UAV proposal as ?short-sighted and dangerous.?

Writing in Forbes, contributor Loren Thompson suggests the move may be based on little more than ?fashionable consensus? that favors UAVs and ?be an instance where fashion trumped functionality.?

A Move Towards Automated Warfare

After more than half a century of use, it is not surprising that the U-2 is being replaced by the more sophisticated, unmanned Global Hawk, says Noel Sharkey, co-founder of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, adding that the U-2’s retirement heralds a further move towards the automation of warfare.

Not all robots used in the service of national defense are as ethically problematic as the “killer robots” that critics have been campaigning against, says Patrick Lin, visiting associate professor at Stanford University’s school of engineering and director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at CalPoly. Nevertheless, ethical questions remain.

?The chief concern here is about making war easier, which prevents it from being a last resort as it should be [?] Even ISR-only robots can indirectly contribute toward increased armed conflicts by identifying more problem-spots and targets for us to strike,? says Lin.

?Whether they [adversaries ] reverse-engineer our technologies or arrive at them on their own, proliferation is inevitable here, as it is with any war technology,” added Lin. “So, we need to also consider longer-term effects on our own security when we are on the other side of the persistent stare.”