In a stunning outbreak of common sense, the USAF cancelled an order for an expensive UAV because it wasn’t as effective at the intended task as other methods. Battle would soon be joined with the fearsome lobbyists and their congressional minions:
Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force cancelled existing orders for the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV and withdrew 18 from service. The Global Hawk manufacturer (Northrop Grumman) unleashed their lobbyists and political supporters on the air force, demanding an explanation for (and reversal of) the decision. The air force responded that the RQ-4 was too expensive and the manufacturer too unreliable. Moreover, reconnaissance mission requirements had changed with the withdrawal from Iraq. High altitude, long duration missions were not needed as much. And those that were needed were better served by using the smaller and cheaper Reaper. Missions normally carried out by the RQ-4 were now handled more efficiently and cheaply by the U-2, which could carry more sensors to higher altitudes. Northrop Grumman insisted it could mount any U-2 sensors on an RQ-4. The air force replied that this had not been their experience. Northrop Grumman would offer to make modification which often went way over budget, took longer than specified and often didn’t work. The air force had been burned once too often by Northrop Grumman when it came to upgrades and fixes on the RQ-4.
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Increasingly over the last decade, the air force and the manufacturer of the RQ-4 found themselves feuding over design, cost, and quality control issues. The latest issue was the unreliability of the new Block 30 models. This renewed Department of Defense threats to cancel the program. But Northrop Grumman lobbyists have made sure the key members of Congress knew where Global Hawk components were being built and how many jobs that added up to. While that delayed the RQ-4 Block 30 cancellation it did not stop it. The air force was placated for a while when Northrop Grumman fixed some of the problems (some of which the manufacturer said don’t exist, or didn’t matter). The Block 30 was supposed to be good to go, but the air force was not convinced and decided that Block 30 was just more broken promises. Congress was also tired of all the feuding and being caught between Northrup lobbyists and exasperated air force generals. Then there was politician’s decision to cut the defense budget over the next decade. Something had to go.
Meanwhile, the manned U-2 has continued to operate as expected and, despite its age, with predictable costs. Moreover, the U-2 carries a larger load than the RQ-4 and that means it can do more when it is up there. The U-2 also has its supporters in Congress. So the RQ-4 took a hit so the popular U-2 could keep flying for another decade or so.
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There has been plenty of competition for RQ-4 work. In addition to the manned U-2, there is a longer (42 hours) endurance version of the five ton Reaper as well as the jet powered version of the Reaper called Avenger. This aircraft can do 85 percent of what the RQ-4 can, but costs half as much. Moreover, the Avenger is 29 percent faster, although it only has endurance of 20 hours, compared to 35 for the RQ-4. Most importantly, the Avenger and Reaper come from a manufacturer (General Atomics) that has been much more dependable than Northrop Grumman.