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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.
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.”
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.
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.