- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2014

Defense officials say they have found a way to achieve much-needed cost cuts while weeding out wasteful duplication in the nation’s aerial spying program: Remove expensive sensors from the Pentagon’s aging U-2 spy planes and attach them to Global Hawk surveillance drones.

It’s uncertain, however, whether Congress will consider the plan, which is among the more eye-opening aspects of the Obama administration’s vast defense budget restructuring.

According to an internal Air Force memo obtained by The Washington Times, the Pentagon wants to spend roughly $2 billion enhancing its fleet of Global Hawk drones over the coming decade, with about $500 million to transfer the sensors.

Doing so, defense officials say, could let the Pentagon phase out the U-2 plane. Congress has been trying to thwart such a move for years because of concern that the Global Hawk drones are neither as cost-efficient nor as effective as the iconic spy plane that dates back to the Eisenhower era and has been involved in numerous Cold War showdowns.


It’s a battle between old and new technologies — in this case, a jet with a pilot and an unmanned drone — with which the Pentagon is all too familiar. In recent years, Congress has passed legislation that forced the Defense Department to continue flying both types of aircraft, resulting in a messy spending overlap plaguing one of the military’s most futuristic programs.

The Defense Department will try to convince Congress that transferring the sensor from its old, reliable U-2 spy plane to the Global Hawk surveillance drone would be more cost-efficient than keeping both in the air. (Associated Press photographs)
The Defense Department will try to convince Congress that transferring the sensor ... more >

The challenge, defense analysts say, is for the Pentagon to convince Congress that harvesting advanced sensor equipment from U-2s will result in a fleet of Global Hawk drones that are more cost- and mission-effective over the long term than either of the aircraft is in its present status.

Air Force officials already are touting data that they say show the overall cost per flying hour of the Global Hawk is roughly $24,000 — 25 percent less than the $32,000 for a U-2.

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior Brookings Institution fellow specializing in national security and foreign policy issues, says the Pentagon still needs to convince “key people in key constituencies” that the sensor switch and retirement plan “is a good decision.”

There is “nothing inherently wrong” with harvesting sensors from one aircraft and putting them onto another, Mr. O’Hanlon said. “If you can make the swap relatively economically, it’s probably a smart move.”

Others are not so sure.

The sensor switch would force the spy planes into retirement and challenge established congressional requirements, says Daniel Goure, a national security analyst and vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank near Washington.

Mr. Goure said the plan requires a leap of faith for politicians and accused the Air Force of pushing the move without due diligence on whether the switch is as simple as it sounds.

Modified Global Hawks, Mr. Goure said, may end up costing more to fly than the U-2 if it turns out the sensors are too heavy for a single drone to carry. The price, he said, also could spike if the drones require assistance of additional intelligence aircraft or other assets to conduct the types of missions that a single spy plane can carry out by itself.

“There’s a question,” Mr. Goure said, “as to whether flying-hour cost should be the sole method — or is even an accurate method — for the true cost of one versus the other.

“One has to be suspicious of the cost figures,” he added.

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