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 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.
The Pentagon appears undeterred by such concerns.
Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Erika Yepsen told The Times that a combination "of other capabilities and the Global Hawk" drone should meet the needs of the military. The Air Force, she added, looks "at what the mission requires and what combination of platforms and capabilities meet the requirements of that mission."
But the Pentagon has not been entirely forthcoming about how it plans to spend the $1.9 billion that it wants to make the sensor switch over 10 years.
According to a March 3 Air Force talking points memo obtained by The Times, some $1.3 billion will go toward reliability and other improvements to the Global Hawk drones, with $500 million going specifically toward the sensor transfers.
It is not specifically clear, meanwhile, what precise sensor capability the Pentagon plans to transfer from the U-2 to the Global Hawk.
While the exact specifications of spy aircraft sensors is classified, published reports show the U-2 has multiple sensors on it, including the elite SYERS 2, which contains an optical infrared camera that adds to the aircraft's long-held dominance over what defense officials describe as ISR — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — missions.
One Defense Department source, who spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity, said the Air Force is conducting a $10 million study on whether sensors from the U-2 can realistically be adapted to the Global Hawk.
The study pays particular attention to how differences in flight performance between the drones and the spy planes would affect sensor performance, the source said.
Last year, Air Force officials told lawmakers that strapping U-2 sensors onto the Global Hawk via a tool belt, known as a "universal payload adapter," was feasible. But Air Force officials cautioned that it would take the military three years to develop and test the adapter and another two years to produce it in a final form.
There are also questions about the role of Northrop Grumman, the weapons company responsible for building Global Hawk drones for the Defense Department.
It was Northrop Grumman that originally pitched the sensor switch plan to the Pentagon after the company designed the "universal payload adapter" using in-house funds.
The Air Force initially was not responsive toward the plan, which arrived after a yearslong budget battle with Congress over the cheapest and best ways to advance overall capabilities of the nation's aerial spying program.
The Pentagon initially pushed a proposal to simply pull the veteran U-2s out of the sky in favor of replacing them with an all-new and notably sexier fleet of Global Hawks. But Congress thwarted that plan by establishing a requirement that the Defense Department first must prove to lawmakers that the newer drones are more cost-efficient and effective.
In subsequent years, the Pentagon attempted to ditch some of the prized Global Hawks. Congress responded with the legislation that forced the Pentagon to continue flying both types of aircraft.
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