The latest round in the battle between the Air Force and Congress over the U-2 and Global Hawk is gearing up, and it promises to be a good one.
Last year during the monsoon season on Guam, where the Air Force has been flying Global Hawk missions to monitor North Korea, whenever there was a
storm the aircraft were grounded. This led to them being grounded for an entire month at one point. The aircraft has no camera system that allows it
to see weather, and the ceiling is over 10,000 feet lower than the U-2 it's bidding to replace.
The Air Force has decreed that it must be able to fly 10,000 feet over the top of any storms in its path, and with a ceiling of 60,000 feet, it's not
always able to do this. The U-2 on the other hand is capable of flying well over any storm that it might encounter, with an actual ceiling in the
75,000 foot range.
In a direct comparison between the two the platforms seem equal, with the U-2 having the higher ceiling, much better climb rate, better cost (all the
U-2 platforms have been bought and paid for) and better electro-optical camera. The Global Hawk on the other hand wins hands down in endurance (32
hours as opposed to 10-14), as well as more flexible sensors. It only has two sensors, but it has the ability to switch between electro-optical and
SAR modes on one sensor, so it effectively has three.
The U-2 is still remarkably young with the average aircraft being near the 14,000 hour mark and a life cycle expectancy of 75,000 hours.
This fight has gotten several members of Congress (with Northrop Grumman backing) rather upset. They actually put into the budget that the Air Force
was not allowed to use any of their funds to retire, prepare to retire, or place into storage" any RQ-4 Block 30 aircraft. They were also ordered to
buy the three that they opted not to buy, but have been dragging their feet to the point where Congress demanded that the Secretary of Defense force
them to buy the aircraft.
This has been quite the battle to watch over the last few years, and it shows no signs of ending anytime soon.