Retire Global Hawk, Retain Dragon Lady?

Like Boeing’s B-52, the 1950s vintage Lockheed U2 Dragon Lady, a product of Clarence “Kelly” Johnson’s visionary management of the Lockheed Skunk Works, is still in service. Flying since 1957, two years after the introduction of the B-52, it has survived fifteen years longer than the mighty mach 3+ SR-71 Blackbird that succeeded it nine years later.

U2 Dragon Lady

U2 Dragon Lady

The RQ-4 Global Hawk and the upcoming marine environment variant RQ-4C Triton are the sort of aircraft that should have immediately displaced the U2, but this has not happened for a variety of reasons.

RQ-4 Global Hawk

RQ-4 Global Hawk

The U2 is a beautiful piece of machinery as well as a design triumph. Johnson’s team was the Scaled Composites of their day, using the rule book as a paperweight to hold down stacks of paper containing engineering efforts that violated every tenet the aerospace industry had.

Landing gear? Extra weight, just drop it at takeoff. Wing spars? Also extra weight, just make the wings a tiny bit stiffer. Landing is for sissies – just get it close to the ground and belly flop by stalling. The operating envelope is postage stamp sized – pilot in a space suit, aircraft pressurization equal to the peak of Mount Everest, and only ten miles per hour separate stall speed from the sound barrier when this plane is at 70,000′. We lose far more pilots than we do aircraft – they get brain damage from pressure related issues.

The Global Hawk’s minders, safe on the ground, will change shifts two to four times in missions that can last a maximum of thirty three hours. Long range, high altitude reconnaissance should have been the very first niche where machines displaced men, but this is not the case. The politics between Global Hawk builder Northrop Grumman and Congress are dizzying.

As the Air Force tried to counter Northrop’s lobbying effort in 2012, it faced a credibility problem. In early 2011, the service had initially urged that all 33 U-2s be retired and replaced with Global Hawk Block 30s, despite the drone program’s cost overruns and test failures.

“The Air Force … has done some things that were not well thought out,” said the retired pilot. He said the idea that Global Hawks could be substituted for U-2s first emerged a decade ago, when service officials were desperately looking for money to support full-scale production of the new F-22 fighter jet and thought ending the U-2 program would free up needed funds.

“Prior to that, there was never any discussion that Global Hawk could replace the U-2. There was zero analysis to support the idea,” this source said.

What is happening here?

You’ll have to read the article for the particulars, but this sounds a lot like the F-35 debacle. A defense contractor is pushing new technology into this platform and Congress is forcing it on the military, rather than capabilities being based on requirements coming from the battlefield. Some vision of the future and push from development to operations is needed, but this system appears to be an overloaded gravy train on a collision course with sequestration.

The words of Major General James Cartwright from Cartwright Targets F-35, AirSea Battle; Warns of $250B More Cuts deserves to be repeated as many times as needed in order for this to sink in:

“You really need strategy before you spend money, and what you spend it on needs to be something you can actually afford.”

There are some painful lessons on imperial collapse in the history of the Soviet Union. Former member states kept every single tank, plane, and submarine they could lay their hands on during the breakup, but instead of providing security they provided dysfunctional liabilities. The tank graveyard at Kharkiv is an example of a poor outcome – the yard is full of rusting T-72 and T-80 tanks, which are current equipment for many countries.

Kharkiv Tank Graveyard

Kharkiv Tank Graveyard

The submarine graveyard on the Kola peninsula is another monument to poor planning. Ten years post collapse the Northern Fleet wasn’t a navy, it was a poorly run submarine museum, and this lack of regular operations is seen in their abysmal safety record. The United States lost two boats in five years during the 1960s and incidents have been few and far between since then. Russia lost the Kursk in 2000, didn’t run a single combat patrol in 2002, and in 2003 they managed to lose via a towing accident one of sixteen boats that had been decommissioned without defueling their reactors.

Kola Submarine Graveyard

Kola Submarine Graveyard

Large military systems acquisitions obtain representation in Congress by spreading the work among many House districts, making it difficult to outright impossible to terminate an underperforming or unneeded system. What the United States needs in order to project power globally at an appropriate level are smaller, cheaper, smarter systems. The A-29 Super Tucano would be a good investment for us, but instead we get things like the enormously complex, enormously expensive F-35 Lightning II.

I do not understand the difference in the use cases for the U-2 and the RQ-4 well enough to do more than point out the underlying issues. Given the hazards involved in operating the U-2 this seems like the very first niche where an unmanned vehicle should have appeared. Perhaps the problem is that the stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel or some planned successor offers the right features … but has the wrong builder? If someone has deeper insight on this issue please forward me supporting links.

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